State Capitol Preservation Committee manages upkeep of historic building
HARRISBURG — When visitors to the state Capitol admire the white marble statues flanking the building’s front entrance, they’re unaware of the meticulous repair work using hypodermic needles to fill microscopic cracks required to keep the figures looking like new.
The statues, sculpted by Bellefonte artist George Grey Barnard, were once cleaned by sand-blasting, which removed the marble’s protective skin.
Overseeing the painstaking work — and the restoration, preservation and maintenance of virtually every historic element in the state Capitol and surrounding buildings — is the job the Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee.
The agency, tucked on the top floor of the Capitol, manages the upkeep of everything from mosaic tile floors and Civil War flags to antique furniture and 287 historic clocks.
“For us, it’s a labor of love. We don’t have any political interests,” said Chris Ellis, senior preservation project manager for the committee. “We’re here for the building so people can come and experience it the way it was meant to be.”
The 15-member committee, which guides the work of six paid staffers, voted Wednesday to restore the bronze doors and fixtures of the main Capitol building for $248,500.
“It’s not just a place to work. It’s a living museum,” said Sen. John Gordner, R-Bloomsburg, the committee’s chairman.
Pennsylvania’s 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 wasn’t until 1982 that a dedicated preservation committee was created by the state Legislature. Without the committee, the Capitol would look very different.
For one thing, the marble tile walls in the main rotunda would not be a gleaming white.
“I still remember when (cleaning crews) took down all the scaffolding and you could see what they had completed and that half was white and the other half literally was an orange-ish color,” Gordner said. “It was from 70, 80 years of … smoking.”
Century-old wood and leather chairs, ornate desks and mirrors — designed by Huston — would be broken and discarded.
And several of Henry Chapman Mercer’s Moravian floor tiles would still sit in storage under Harrisburg’s State Street Bridge. The committee found them and installed them in the foyer of the House majority leader’s office.
“There are lots of little details all over the place that we’re monitoring,” said Jason Wilson, historian for the committee. “If we’re doing it right, people don’t even know we’re doing it.”
The committee’s challenge is to execute its mission on roughly $2.5 million a year — $717,000 for operations and $1.8 million for projects — topped off with smaller amounts of revenue from a Capitol gift shop and donations made by tour groups. Since its inception, the committee has spent about $88 million on projects and maintenance, said David Craig, executive director of the committee.
Still, projects remain undone for lack of funding.
“Some outlying buildings haven’t gone through a restoration and need it,” Craig said. “In the meantime, we’ll nibble around the edges.”
Getting it right
While some restoration projects are grand, others are mundane necessities.
Every other week, the Capitol’s uneven mosaic tile floors, which Ellis dubbed “the largest piece of artwork in the Capitol,” are mopped and their protective coating checked. Broken tiles and grout are repaired periodically.
Every other year, main hallways are inspected and every ding and scratch noted and repaired, Ellis said.
“Maintenance (accounts for) our biggest projects; they all build on one another,” Craig said. “If we do our jobs, it should all be maintenance, not restoration.”
But maintenance efforts before the committee was formed were not always well-executed, so some of the group’s work involves undoing mistakes from decades past.
That can take research — even detective-type work — to make sure the restoration is accurate. Craig is quick to note that the committee doesn’t make design or remodeling decisions.
“It’s just us doing the legwork to see what’s there,” he said.
When the committee began restoring the House chamber’s ceiling and walls in 1998, a lab looked at paint samples scraped with a scalpel to determine the original hues used in the Italian Renaissance-style room.
What came back was perplexing: The gray walls were originally a salmon color.
As the wall panels were repainted salmon, Ellis said it began to make sense — the color picked up on the salmon-colored walls of Independence Hall in the painting above the chamber’s dais.
“You know you did it right,” Ellis said. “It’s kind of a great feeling.”
Kari Andren is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2856 or [email protected].