The State Capitol Preservation Committee manages the maintenance of the historic building



HARRISBURG – When visitors to the State Capitol admire the white marble statues flanking the main entrance to the building, they’re unaware of the meticulous repair work using hypodermic needles to fill in the microscopic cracks needed to keep the figurines like new.

The statues, sculpted by Bellefonte artist George Gray Barnard, were once cleaned by sandblasting, which removed the protective skin from the marble.

Overseeing the painstaking work – and the restoration, preservation, and maintenance of virtually all of the historic features of the State Capitol and surrounding buildings – is the job of the Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee.

The agency, nestled on the top floor of the Capitol, handles upkeep of everything from mosaic floors and Civil War flags to antique furniture and 287 historic clocks.

“For us, it’s a labor of love. We have no political interest, ”said Chris Ellis, senior preservation project director for the committee. “We are here for the building so that people can come and experience it as it should. ”

The 15-member committee, which guides the work of six paid employees, voted Wednesday to restore the bronze doors and fixtures to the main Capitol building for $ 248,500.

“It’s not just a place to work. It’s a living museum, ”said Senator John Gordner, R-Bloomsburg, chairman of the committee.

Expensive maintenance

The Pennsylvania Capitol, designed by Joseph Huston and completed in 1906, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, along with several surrounding buildings and memorials.

Yet it was not until 1982 that a dedicated preservation committee was created by the state legislature. Without the committee, the Capitol would be very different.

For one thing, the marble-tiled walls of the main rotunda would not be dazzling white.

“I still remember when (the cleaning crews) took all the scaffolding down and you could see what they had finished and half was white and the other half was literally orange in color,” Gordner said. “It was from 70, 80 years of … smoking.”

Century-old wooden and leather chairs, ornate desks and mirrors – designed by Huston – would be broken and thrown away.

And several of Henry Chapman Mercer’s Moravian floor tiles are said to still be stored under Harrisburg’s State Street Bridge. The committee found them and placed them in the foyer of the House majority leader’s office.

“There are a lot of little details everywhere that we are watching,” said Jason Wilson, committee historian. “If we do it right, people don’t even know we’re doing it. ”

The challenge for the committee is to carry out its mission with approximately $ 2.5 million per year – $ 717,000 for operations and $ 1.8 million for projects – supplemented by smaller amounts of income from a Capitol gift shop and donations made by tour groups. Since its inception, the committee has spent approximately $ 88 million on projects and maintenance, said David Craig, executive director of the committee.

However, projects remain unfinished for lack of funding.

“There are some outlying buildings that haven’t gone through restoration and need it,” Craig said. “In the meantime, we’ll be snacking on the edges.”

Make the right choices

While some restoration projects are grandiose, others are mundane necessities.

Every two weeks, the uneven mosaic floors of the Capitol, which Ellis has dubbed “the Capitol’s greatest work of art,” are cleaned and their protective coating checked. Broken tiles and grout are repaired periodically.

Every two years, the main hallways are inspected and every nick and scratch noted and repaired, Ellis said.

“Maintain (rely on) our biggest projects; they all lean on each other, ”Craig said. “If we’re doing our job, it should all be maintenance, not restoration.”

But maintenance efforts before the committee formed were not always well executed, so part of the group’s job is to fix the mistakes of decades past.

It may take some research – even detective-type work – to make sure the restore is accurate. Craig is quick to note that the committee doesn’t make any design or renovation decisions.

“It’s just us who do the legwork to see what’s out there,” he said.

When the committee began restoring the bedroom ceiling and walls of the House in 1998, a lab examined scalpel-scraped paint samples to determine the original hues used in the Italian Renaissance-style room.

What came back was confusing: the gray walls were originally salmon in color.

As the wall panels were repainted in salmon, Ellis said it started to make sense – the color picked up on the salmon-colored walls of Independence Hall in the paint above the bedroom dais.

“You know you did it right,” Ellis said. “It’s kind of a great feeling.”

Kari Andren is a writer for Tribune-Review. Contact her at 724-850-2856 or [email protected]


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