Silk Purses and Sow’s Ears
Converting the capitol into an office building
September 7, 1979
Over the decades the Illinois capitol has been defaced by thoughtless remodelings in a foolish attempt to make it usable as office space. Murals were painted over, ornate ceilings covered with acoustic tiles—you get the idea. Thank goodness the proposed ”improvements” to the building I write about here were not approved in the end.
As art, the Illinois statehouse suffers from a rather too obvious desire to please. Apparently not sure which of several then-current styles would look best, the architect strove to include them all. Its 405-foot height makes it as conspicuous as it is eccentric. It is the closest thing to a cathedral we will ever have in the state, literally a museum of vanished craftsmanship. Beyond that, the statehouse does what any successful building is supposed to do, because in its lavish expenditure of resources in the pursuit of irrelevancies it perfectly embodies the spirit of the government it was built to house.
I like the statehouse, for reasons that I cheerfully admit are idiosyncratic. For example, it is one of the very few places left where one can hear an echo, an experience likely to soon join the corset and the honest day’s work among the vanished artifacts of the 19th century. (Echoes are especially popular, of course, among those of us who love most to hear ourselves talk. Sen. John Knuppel shares this trait; it was he who liked to step into the rotunda and bellow the name of our now-resigned transportation director—"L-a-a-a-n-g-h-o-r-n-e B-o-o-o-n-d.”
It was with more than my usual irritation, then, that I learned in June of a proposal to spend some $8 million to amend this masterly pile. It seems that the remodeling of the Capitol failed to include fire escapes for office workers encamped on the upper floors, who as a result are left fit to be fried. Fire escapes apparently can be added by tunneling down through the inside of the building at a cost of $1.7 million. But depending on which of two variations are used, this remedy would result in the destruction of office space now used by either the secretary of state or by the staff of the speaker of the House.
This clearly will not do; state officials regard office space the way Bedouins regard camels. The statehouse architect was told to come up with a better idea, which in state government means a more expensive one. He told them that for eight mill they could dismantle the limestone facade along seventy-two feet of the east faces of the Capitol’s north and south wings, extend the walls outward twenty feet and replace the facade, much as was done with the Old State Capitol. The job would supply the missing fire escapes plus another 20,000 square feet of new office space.
A couple of questions suggest themselves. The first is, how was it possible to build those offices in the first place in flagrant violation of the state’s own fire code? The state fire marshal’s office is right across the street, after all, and his staff is well known for going much farther out of their way than that to make life miserable for hapless small business people unlucky enough to have doors that open inward instead of out. There are several possible explanations, all the result of past state officials doing things you wouldn’t want your children to be caught doing.
Given the General Assembly‘s habit of painting itself into corners, we may also ask why we should believe that the proposed emendation won’t cause even costlier problems ten years from now. The supporters of the remodeling plan insist it won’t (they dismiss the more modest remedy as jerry-rigging) but legislators as a class have the same kind of reputation as a paroled embezzler—which in a more perfect world many of them would be.
Their track record with the building is not reassuring. Ground was broken for its construction in 1868, but it took eight years before anyone could move in. and another twenty years before it was finished. By the time it was done the cost had ballooned from $3 million to more than $4.5 million.
The present remodeling project has been going on since I was a child and still isn’t finished; many sixth graders who visit the statehouse every summer think scaffolding, was a popular form of 19th century ornament. The project was undertaken during the administration of Paul Powell, who as Secretary of State had custody of the building; under the circumstances, I suppose we should be grateful the thing is still there at all.
The most pertinent question is why the state can’t just remove the threatened offices and put them in a new, fire-safe building built with the $8 million it would save. The cost per square foot for such space under the remodeling plan would be roughly $400, or $2.77 per square inch. standard three-bedroom ranch house built at that cost would set you back nearly a half-million bucks. The Capital Development Board, by comparison, expects to spend only $6.7 million to build a new computer center—a specialized building, mind you—which will provide close to 70,000 square feet at a cost of only $96 each.
Of course, the state argues that it can’t relocate that part of the speaker’s staff. because the division would have unspecified but presumably dire effects on the course of state government. There are those of us who think a divided staff here and there in the statehouse might be an l improvement. It seems a simple enough housekeeping problem. There is no shortage of room in the statehouse, merely an excess of tenants. Most of the major state officeholders are lodged in the statehouse. The arrangement flows from no constitutional or administrative imperative; they locate there for the same reason that an Orange Julius stand locates in one of the better shopping malls—it’s a prestige address, and the traffic gives them high visibility.
In the past this concentration made a certain symbolic sense, I suppose. (Though a literally symbolic arrangement of officeholders would have put the treasurer in the basement, and the lieutenant governor out at the fairgrounds.) But that was before the explosion in the size of legislative staff stretched the Capitol to its limits, like a child’s balloon that’s been filled with too much air. Whether this expansion in legislative staff is good or bad is immaterial for the moment. What is important is that the statehouse is becoming more and more a legislative headquarters building.
Why, then, can’t planners acknowledge the fact and move the non-legislative officers out? There is no reason why the comptroller (to pick an example at random) can’t discharge his constitutional duties from the Stratton Building, or the Centennial Building, or for that matter from a trailer parked at the Lincoln Towers. (Officials have been doing the people’s business from hotel rooms and bars for years, after all.) There is even a precedent; the Supreme Court used to be housed in the Capitol (in the south corridor, in chambers now used less augustly as a legislative hearing room) before its own building was finished in 1908.
Maybe it wouldn’t work. Like Nature, the General Assembly abhors a vacuum, and whatever savings of space that might be accomplished by a housecleaning probably will be quickly negated as the two houses continue their bloat. In the meantime, on August 16, the $8 million fix-up proposal was referred to a legislative subcommittee by the Legislative Space Needs Commission, ostensibly because the subcommittee could better take public comment on its wisdom. Gov. Thompson made his views known on August 30. Exercising both fiscal and common sense, Thompson vetoed $565,000 in planning funds for the project, saying that before he would spend the money "we should identify a solution to the fire safety problems that is feasible, economical, and does not threaten the historical value of the Capitol."
Supporters of the project threatened to override, but then they’re always threatening something. The fact is that trying to convert the statehouse into an office building is like turning a silk purse into a sow’s ear. An intelligent person wouldn’t consider it; a prudent person wouldn’t attempt it. But as this episode proves again, neither intelligence nor prudence is a common virtue in the General Assembly. ●