Capitol Restructuring

Tuesday, December 11, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Carson City, NV
Today marked the second time on this trip that we have visited two state capitol buildings on consecutive days.  And the Nevada and California capitols marked just as great a contrast as those we observed between North and South Dakota.
The most obvious departure is the size of the capital city.  At 55,274, Carson City's population is dwarfed by the much larger Sacramento.  And that small town feel was evident in the informality that greeted us at the Nevăda Capitol (pictured above).  Yes, as many official state publications remind, the state's name is pronounced ne-vad-uh.  The middle syllable rhymes with bad, not with odd.
Upon arriving at what turned out to be a capitol complex, similar to what we saw in Washington state, where various branches of government operate in their own buildings, we easily located a free parking spot at the end of a short sidewalk leading to the main Capitol building.  A security officer was stationed inside the entrance and was happy to provide directions.  When I asked about a restroom, he kindly told me to "turn right at the governor's office."
A main corridor leading to Secretary of State's office
After achieving statehood during the Civil War in 1864, Nevada's government met in a hotel in Carson City, which had been declared the capital.  Construction on a permanent capitol began in April, 1871, and was completed a scant year later in May, 1872.  To keep construction costs down, the building's sandstone exterior blocks were furnished by  the quarry operated by the state prison.
Consistent with 19th century building techniques, the floors and roof of the capitol were not properly tied to the exterior sandstone walls.  By the 1940s, severe deterioration of the mortar and the inherent weakness of the design spurred debate over whether the capitol should be demolished or restored.
When the building was declared hazardous, demolition was ordered in the late 1950s.  Yet the order was never carried out as debate continued over the possibility of restoration.  Finally in 1974, engineering firms determined that with extensive rehabilitation the building could be saved.  Like other old edifices in town, the Capitol building used sandstone at its core, and one good shake could turn it into a pile of rubble. The radical plan was to gut it completely, shore up the walls, and rebuild the interior to make the Capitol resistant to earthquakes and fire.
Reinforced walls are built inside Capitol shell.  (photo from Nevada State Library and Archives)
A contract was issued to reconstruct the building.  After the interior and all the objects within it were inventoried and stored, the inside of the building was gutted down to the stone walls and dirt floor.  A reinforced steel and concrete framework was built within the old stone veneer.  During restoration, the original tin dome was replaced by a fiberglass dome painted silver.  All the original trim and moldings were replaced including a three-foot frieze painted in 1917 at the top of the first-floor walls.  The elements of the mural represent the state's industries and resources.
This intricate frieze was removed and restored in the Capitol's renovation.
In addition to the painted fiberglass dome—a bit of irony in the Silver State—contractors identified other ways to save costs in the capitol restructuring.  The original black walnut staircase handrail to the second floor was reinstalled, but the wainscoting going up the stairs and on the second floor is made of pine, which was faux-painted to look like oak.
Faux sure, that wainscoting is pretending to be something it isn't.
Unlike most domed capitol buildings, Nevada's does not include a rotunda.  In its original design an inner dome in the center of the second floor ceiling helped to provide light and ventilation.  Unfortunately, the opening also provided an ingress for bats, which collected in the cupola and occasionally swooped down to startle staff and visitors.  The inner dome was eliminated in the 1977 reconstruction.
Nevada's Capitol building is the second smallest in the country, larger than only Alaska's.  With growing needs and a determination to preserve the original structure, the Senate and Assembly moved to a new legislative building near the Capitol in 1971, making Nevada one of only three states in which the legislature does not meet in the Capitol. 
Legislative building, home to lawmakers since 1971
Legislative chambers and offices are located in the new building, which was completely open for visitors to wander about.  Guided tours of the Capitol require advance notice to allow volunteers to be scheduled, but we found the self-guided tour with the assistance of a well-crafted brochure to be quite satisfactory.

Although most of the capitol buildings we've visited have undergone some renovation and restoration, Nevada's statehouse project was by far the most ambitious and exhaustive.  Employees we encountered on our visit were friendly and knowledgeable, serving as excellent ambassadors for their state.

  • Architectural style:  Neoclassical
  • Constructed:  1870-71
  • Original cost:  $170,000
  • Dome surface:  tin, replaced with fiberglass painted silver
  • Renovation:  1977-81
  • Renovation cost:  $6 million
Faux sure, that dome is not genuine Nevada silver.
Senate chamber
Assembly Chamber (Like California's lower house, a portrait of Lincoln is featured.)