By Paige Engelhardt
Construction signs litter Capitol Hill as eager government officials and Utah County residents scramble to enter Legislative committee meetings on time. A strange aura sets over this winter scene as one peers in the distance at the looming dark skeleton of the Utah State Capitol uninhabited in the background.
The Utah State Capitol building will be closed for construction until 2008 while it undergoes a $200 million restoration project. The project will address prior deficiencies in seismic retrofitting, handicap accessibility, and historical authenticity.
Allen Roberts, historical architect of Cooper Roberts Architecture, said when the building was originally built in 1914, the architects did not have the seismic building codes that currently exist. As a result, an earthquake on the Wasatch fault would cause significant damage to the building and any person therein.
?The goal is to save lives,? Roberts said.
Ivan Wong, principal seismologist of URS Corp., confirmed the possibility of dangerous seismic activity in Salt Lake, which sits comfortably on top of the Wasatch fault.
To comfortably use the building as a governmental hub, Wong said a large-scale reconstruction of the building was necessary.
?It?s a big threat,? he said. ?If they want to continue to use that structure, then it needed to be retrofitted.?
David Hart, executive director of the Utah State Capitol Preservation Board, said the Capitol as it represents a free democratic nation. Without a safe, functional and secure structure, the voices of Utah residents may not symbolically be successfully heard and heeded.
?The State Capitol is a symbol of our freedoms. A symbol of what our government stands for,? said Hart. ??The Legislature does their business in the public?s view. They are really doing the people?s work. [The Capitol is] where the people need to come and present their concerns with the elected officials. Their office is really the people?s office; their meeting rooms are really the people?s meeting rooms.?
Before construction began in September 2004, Hart said these general aims could not successfully be carried out.
?As busy as everybody is up here?for a member of the general public to try and have a conversation with someone in the hall, it?s impossible,? Hart said. ?[It?s] about sitting down and talking to the governor or representative of Utah.?
The project is focused to help the residents of Utah achieve a free democracy in a safe, functional environment.
?It is a building that is symbolic, and it represents who we are as a democratic people ? a free election system [with] people who have a say in the creating of laws,? Hart said.
On the more technical side of the issue, Roberts, a major contributor to the Utah State Capitol Planning and Historic Structures Report, said that he agreed with the necessity in preserving and restoring the Capitol?s architectural details to provide the public with the safety and beauty they deserve.
?This project is definitely needed and should be a high priority project,? Roberts said. ?There were a lot of deficiencies that needed to be corrected of all sorts? We have an opportunity now to correct those difficulties and improve upon all of them in a way that will provide a building that should last for another 100 or more years.?
Some taxpayers have expressed concerns regarding the high price of the project.
After visiting various capitol buildings around the country and gaining a greater understanding of the purpose of the building, he rated the project as high priority, Roberts said. The problems had to be met, he said.
?So I think we?re creating permanent, sound, well-conceived solutions to long-standing problems,? Roberts said. ?And that should make state government more effective.?
As for now, the Legislature and Senate will meet in two new smaller buildings located behind the Capitol. Unfortunately, the conditions there are not quite without flaw.
?It?s cramped,? Hart said. ?We?ve told them it?s going to be cramped from day one.?
Hart said that despite the minor complications, everyone is trying to be patient until the Capitol is completed. After completion, the two end buildings will take on completely different functions.