Missouri House speaker to launch $250 million Capitol rehab

Donations sought to refurbish Capitol, return it closer to original look
Thursday, January 29, 2009 | 5:47 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri's new House speaker wants to give the state Capitol a $250 million makeover.

Set atop a bluff overlooking the Missouri River, the state Capitol is a dominant landmark in Jefferson City. But the 90-year-old building also has a leaky roof, a crumbling foundation and cloth insulation on some electrical wiring.

House Speaker Ron Richard, officially on the job for less than a month, wants to start a charitable trust that would pay for a roughly $250 million project to restore the Capitol closer to its original look. He plans to pitch the idea this spring at an annual dinner for former House speakers and would like past Senate leaders to get involved, too.

"It needs to be done, and nobody else has recognized that," Richard said Thursday. "I majored in history, and I understand the importance of and love this building."

So far, it has cost about $20,000 to pull the carpeting, reupholster chairs and restore the two rooms in the speaker's office. The goal is to raise the $250 million over the next decade through grants and private donations.

Richard said involving former Republican and Democratic officeholders and setting up a formal organization for the fundraising would help protect against groups and lobbyists seeking to buy influence through donations.

Missouri's Capitol was moved to Jefferson City in 1826, but it burned down in 1837. A second building was completed in 1840 and burned in 1911. Construction on the current Capitol started in 1913, and the cornerstone was laid in 1915. But controversy over the quality of the stone caused delays, and the building's concrete terrace wasn't finished until 1918.

Several states have taken on large renovation projects of their capitols. The capitols in Idaho and Virginia were shut down, and state officials moved to other buildings to finish construction work quicker.

Kansas started a statehouse renovation project in 2001 that was expected to cost $120 million. But that project ballooned to at least $285 million when a parking garage, visitors' center and new basement offices were added. It's not expected to be completed until 2011.

Richard, R-Joplin, has mentioned renovating the Missouri Capitol before, but the project has started to pick up steam now that he is the House's top leader.

The Missouri Broadcasters Association has pledged to give at least $100,000 in free advertising on television and radio stations across the state to help generate publicity for the project.

Don Hicks, president and chief executive officer for the trade group, said it's difficult to raise money right now and Richard's idea is a worthwhile cause because so many people visit the Capitol.

"What a shame it is when they walk into that state Capitol to not see it in its best shape," Hicks said. "It's a sad reflection on our state."

Missouri radio and TV stations generally give to the association a certain block of advertising time that is sold to government agencies and nonprofit groups. The fundraising efforts will get some of that time but won't have to pay for it.

Richard on Thursday led a reporter on a brief tour of the first round of work in his two-room office. He has borrowed 1920s-era lamps from the Governor's Mansion and repaired chairs from the U.S. House of Representatives that now line his conference table. He has removed the carpet to reveal a wooden floor for the first time in decades.

In a public room adjoining the speaker's office, Richard placed in a glass case a desk that was used in the Missouri Capitol that burned down in 1911. It recently was found in the Capitol's basement on top of the duct work.

Richard also pointed out the blemishes: light fixtures that can't be moved because of cloth insulation, cracked walls and white paint splotches on old wooden trims.

"When times are tough, you don't spend the money on refurbishing, and when times are good, you forget about it," Richard said.

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