Last week, in the spirit of Halloween, the Capitol’s keepers offered a rare glimpse into a little seen, third chamber of the Legislature: the vault of crumbling infrastructure.
Michigan’s Capitol Commission, the agency that oversees the 1873 national historic landmark and its grounds, is turning its attention from a recently completed $6 million restoration of the iconic iron dome and sandstone walls to a less sexy task.
The commission wants to overhaul the Capitol’s moist, crumbling basement and attic and the maze of mechanical systems that hums, heaves and groans within.
It’s a tougher sell than the highly visible exterior renovation, but no less necessary, according to tour leader and Commissioner John Truscott.
The cost of the overhaul may run into the “tens of millions,” depending on how much work is done and what the timetable will be, Truscott said.
As the tour got underway on the first floor, the floor itself vibrated ominously under us.
“We’re going to see some things the public has never seen before,” Truscott said, as if he were opening the tomb of Dracula.
There was a perfectly rational explanation for the rumble: a bad bearing on an air-handling unit, according to Chad Clark of the Christman Co., the main contractor for the recent restoration and proposed overhaul.
Water, in vapor and liquid form, has been attacking the Capitol for 137 years and is beginning to cause some casualties.
Clark showed the assembled reporters images of cracked plaster, damaged paint, and even cracked furniture in the House and Senate chambers caused by drastic fluctuations in humidity.
The shell of the Capitol doesn’t have a moisture barrier, as modern buildings do. Modern humidity control is a must for any office building, Clark said, much less a historic one that is also a museum of art and architecture.
He superimposed two charts tracking spikes in humidity outside the building and inside. They were almost identical.
Next, Clark sent a 360-degree robot camera scurrying into the crawl space underneath the House chamber.
The camera sent back blurry, “Blair Witch” images of water-damaged plaster due to leaking pipes and other haunts.
“That is a wet fire suppression system running directly over the top of electrical gear,” Clark said. “It’s a very moist environment. Not a good spot for electrical gear.”
Girding for more horrors firsthand, Truscott, Christman staff members and media observers took the elevator to the top floor and made their way across a catwalk suspended over the House chambers.
We looked down through glass ceiling panels commemorating the states of the Union. (The plates read “AWOI,” “NAGIHCIM,” and so on.) The Capitol dome reared up in a misty rain beyond the skylight glass over our heads.
We hunkered into a cramped attic where a trash can was catching a leak from a moisture-damaged pump.
A powder-blue spot marked a hole in a pipe carrying rain from a roof drain. A blue liner was keeping gallons of rainwater from pouring over the House of Representatives.
The unseen levels of the Capitol are lined with bricks, often vaulted and scalloped overhead. Even the attic roof is made of clay masonry. The Capitol, uniquely for its time, was designed to be fire resistant. Architect Eijah E. Myers made a point of not using structural wood, a primary cause of fire in the 19th century.
However, some systems used in modern buildings, including hot and chilled water, didn’t exist in Myers’ day and had to be crammed into the Capitol’s basement and ceiling vaults.
In the bowels of the Capitol, water pipes are nudging electrical conduits in several places. A major goal of the proposed “guts” overhaul will be to separate hydronic (water-carrying) systems from electrical ones.
We descended to the south vault, a brick-lined basement under the legislative chambers where waterproofing is failing and moisture is making its way through the joints. We looked at rusting steam supply lines and corroded water pipes.
The south vault is a strange mix of time periods. A jumbled nest of color-coded mechanical systems, from fire suppression lines to steam pipes to snow melt catch pipes and electrical conduits, jostle each other under the mottled brick arches and ceilings.
Lime mortar used in the 1800s is crumbling after long exposure to moisture in the basement, where there is no forced ventilation.
Ron Staley, an exec with the Christman Co., rubbed his hands on the mortar and pulled them away covered with crumbly white powder.
The gadgets and pipes in the vault come from a crazy quilt of vintages, from 1950s pneumatic tubes to ductwork and electrical controls from the most recent equipment overhaul in the 1990s.
“This is to show what’s going on with the building and the decisions we’re going to make as a commission, because there are costs,” Truscott said.
The Capitol Commission gets about $3 million a year in state tobacco tax revenue for maintenance of the building and grounds, and is using some of the money to study what needs to be done.
The commission, formed in 2013 to stabilize care of the Capitol in the era of term limits, includes the secretary of the Senate, the clerk of the House and two members appointed by the governor.
Truscott said the commission will consider moving to geothermal heat, which would cost more up front but possibly save money in the long run.
EYP architects and Loring Engineers of Albany and New York are working on plans to put the utility equipment in an underground, humidity-controlled vault, or find a place for it on the building’s main floor.
In the boiler room Truscott paused to contemplate the final horror of the tour: the price tag.
“We don’t know exactly how much yet,” he said. “It depends on — do we tackle it all at once or do we do it in phases? Obviously we can see how big, potentially, this project is. It could be tens of millions of dollars.”
By the end of the year, the commission will send its recommendations to the governor and the Legislature, either of whom could authorize money to do the work.
Traditional bonding for a project isn’t an option for work on the state Capitol, which is of no more use as collateral than Castle Dracula.
“Nobody really owns the Capitol building,” Truscott said. “I mean, we know people of Michigan own it, but if you think that investment banks are going to say, ‘OK, I’m going to take your building’ — that’s not going to happen.”