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Downtown Jackson, Miss., Treasure Receives Upgrade

Built on the site of the old state penitentiary, Mississippi’s state Capitol is one of downtown Jackson’s greatest treasures.

Wed May 27, 2015 - Southeast Edition
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Built on the site of the old state penitentiary, Mississippi’s state Capitol is one of downtown Jackson’s greatest treasures. Featuring marble from around the world, brass fixtures and ornate iron work, the four-story Beaux Arts-style structure was deemed, “a reflex of the state’s public spirit, pride and integrity” during its dedication more than a century ago. But time has taken its toll.

“The Capitol was last renovated in the early 1980s and over the course of the last 30 years it has suffered from inconsistent maintenance and from some chronic problems stemming from its original design and construction,” said Lawson Newman, WFT Architects, who is overseeing the entire project. “The public will be most interested in the restoration of the stained glass windows and the re-gilding of the eagle, since these are probably the building’s most widely known and best loved elements. The repairs to the lantern atop the main dome are probably the most critical because of their difficulty and due to the fact that they will restore the lantern to its original appearance.”

The state’s third Capitol, the statehouse was designed by St. Louis, Mo., architect Theodore Link. The building cost $1 million, which was paid by the Illinois Central Railroad’s back taxes. Designated a Mississippi landmark and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the Capitol is filled with history — and, unfortunately, water damage.

“The building has apparently leaked since it was completed in 1903,” said Newman. “Most of these leaks were small, but chronic and persistent and in certain isolated areas led to serious deterioration of the parts of the steel roof structure and the special concrete system used to construct the roof decks. In these areas, we are demolishing the original roof decks and replacing them with new steel framing supporting new concrete roof decks.”

Temporary walls currently block the rotunda at the center of the Capitol as a precaution, because steel framing is being installed in the attic space above.

“If an accident were to occur and a piece of steel were dropped, it would probably break through the plaster interior dome and fall to the floor below,” said Newman. “By blocking off the rotunda, the contractor drastically reduced the risk of anyone being injured.”

Johnson Construction was selected as general contractor for the restoration. The project team includes Brenda Davis, curator of the Mississippi state Capitol; John Sprayberry, project manager of the bureau of building; Liz Welch, secretary of the Mississippi Senate; Andrew Ketchings, clerk of the Mississippi House of Representatives; and Mingo Tingle, chief of technical preservation services, Department of Archives and History. All have put in long hours to make sure the right team is in place to carry out the delicate tasks required.

“We sought out several subcontractors locally or nationally recognized as experts in their crafts and invited them to participate in the prequalification process and bid on the project,” Newman said. “The scaffolding was designed by Adam Brown, of Crimson Engineering Associates Inc. of Denver, Colo. The scaffolding was designed to provide access to every square inch of the building’s exterior surface, but couldn’t be mechanically attached to the building. So, the scaffolding around the perimeter was ground supported and braced at the roof. The scaffolding around the main dome is supported on the base of the dome and the roof and is braced at points, but using only methods that will not damage the limestone and terra cotta.”

All restoration work to the eagle was done in place in 10 days with a crew of five.

“The eagle was created by St. Louis sculptor A.R. Grieve,” said Newman. “It consists of a steel armature supporting a sheet copper skin formed to the desired shape using a process called copper repoussé. It stands 8 feet 5 inches tall from base to highest point and 14 feet 2 inches long from wingtip to wingtip. It was last gilded in the 1980s renovation. It has been stripped, cleaned and re-gilded by artisans with The Gilders’ Studio of Olney, Md., using 23.75 carat Italian gold leaf. Only about three ounces of gold were required to gild the whole eagle.

“The stained glass windows were created by Louis Millet, who was a well known Chicago artist working in stained glass and other decorative arts. He frequently worked with the famous Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, designing and fabricating the interior and exterior decoration for his buildings. The windows were repaired in the 1980s renovation, but apparently had never been carefully restored before this project. Pearl River Glass Studio here in Jackson, owned by Andy Young, is performing the restoration work, which involves dismantling each window, cleaning the glass, replacing broken and mismatched pieces, reassembling the panels with new lead caming, and reinstalling in the wood sash with new protective laminated glass on the exterior.”

For Newman, the restoration is personal.

“I’ve always loved history. Historic preservation projects allow me to better understand how the buildings of a particular place embody its history and culture. I also find these projects more exciting and challenging than designing new buildings. I enjoy working with people who are drawn to these type projects.”

To pay for the restoration, legislators approved $6 million in bonds during the 2010 session, another $900,000 in bonds during the 2013 session and nearly $1.4 million in cash during the 2014 session.

“We first received the notice to proceed on this project December 2013, and we are currently approximately 75 percent complete with the project and anticipate substantial completion as of November 21, 2015,” said David Dessert, Johnson Construction senior project manager.

Removal of mortar used in the original construction of the stone and brick masonry has already been completed, along with sealant and other joint filler materials. Crews also have removed and recovered re-installation of the original brick wythe masonry at the east and west semicircular roof attic, removed existing marble soffit panels at the main dome and re-installed two dozen new cut marble soffit panels — each weighing more than 800 lbs. (362 kg) — from marble at the main dome. Chemical cleaning of all exterior masonry has been completed, including all granite, limestone and brick on the building exterior and site appurtenances at lower elevation. Crews also have removed the existing Colombian system at both semicircles and the main mid-dome and installed new structural steel framing and re-poured the Colombian concrete deck.

In addition, workers have removed, cleaned, repaired patina, microcrystalline wax and re-installed historical bronze door surrounds and transoms at all exterior entrances, along with four historical bronze pole lights and 14 historical bronze wall sconces. The inspection of the existing gilded copper of the original 1903 eagle to confirm condition of coatings, copper substrate and steel support structure is finished, as is the stripping of existing gold-leaf gilding and other coatings from copper substrate. Teams also removed more than 400 original wood windows for repair/restoration and replacement. A total of 75 stained glass windows have been restored.

Main tasks to be completed include terra cotta repair, fabrication and installation. Workers must fix cracked units by removal, pinning and reinstallation, or by pinning in place, depending on the crack pattern. Specialists also must fabricate new terra cotta columns, buttresses and a railing system replicating originals of 545 new pieces manufactured to historic accuracy and install those units at the dome lantern at 170 ft. (51.8 m) above the ground.

Installation of the new structural steel framing members, support members at the catwalks and landings inside of the existing main dome has yet to be accomplished, while work also must be carried out for a new fiberglass floor, mezzanine, stair tread and walkway gratings, aluminum access ladders, walkway railings and guardrails. Workers will have to disassemble, replace existing wire glass panels with new laminated glass panels and reassemble copper skylight components. These are the original dome skylights over the House of Representatives and the Senate chambers.

Other tasks involve applied roofing and flashing, along with the repair and renewal of polyurethane foam roofing systems, including a new protective coating. Surface preparation and application of primers and paint systems on each wood window sash, frame, sills, and trim must be performed, along with work involving exterior and interior surfaces, existing and new structural and miscellaneous steel and existing bronze door surrounds. New exterior lighting to illuminate the building at night must also be addressed.

“The main challenges on a project of this nature are coordination, communications and logistics,” said Dessert. “This being the state Capitol, people are coming and going continually, whether its state employees or John-Q-Public visiting the Capitol building for the first time. The work has to be well orchestrated on site day after day, as to not conflict with the traffic. The coordination is compounded even more when the House and Senate are in session.

“The work cannot stop, but there has to be a spirit of cooperation from all levels to have a successful project. Daily even hourly communication and coordination with representatives of the Capitol staff, Capitol police and subcontractors can be challenging at times. Continuous communication from the office and my field superintendent is critical. Logistics on site of material deliveries, moving materials up to the roof, then dome, can also be very challenging. There’s always a level of danger when you are working in such a confined space.”

The purpose for scaffolding is to provide access for construction of the work by the contractor, and for inspection of the work by the owner and architect.

“The success of the scaffolding in such a complex vertical project is planning,” Dessert said. “Safway Scaffolding provided the highest level of design engineer qualifications. The design team had the familiarity with complexity and sequencing anticipated for the subject occupied state designated historic building, and was able to formulate drawings and planning to get it done efficiently, timely and above all safely.”

Work around the building’s perimeter, the building’s east and west ends galleries, scaffolding around the main dome — the lower drum, colonnade, lantern, cupola and the eagle more than 180 ft. (54.8 m) above the ground — took supervision, with 14 men working on the approved plan day-in and day-out. Meeting the challenges of placement to get the work force where they needed to be was no small task. Crews had to exercise extreme caution while erecting scaffolding to prevent accidental contact with and damage to adjacent building elements and materials. The building was occupied during the entire erection process with no adverse effect on personnel.

Heavy left forklifts have been used during the restoration, along with cranes and material handlers. Some power tools have been required, although crews have relied mostly on hand tools.

Battling the elements also has been a concern.

“Weather has been a monumental factor in the schedule of an exterior historic renovation. To date, there have been 124 days of significant rainfall and 136 days where the temperatures were below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Many construction materials cannot be installed if temperature are 50 degrees Fahrenheit and falling.

The extensive Capitol restoration will be Dessert’s final project, as he prepares to retire after more than 40 years in the construction field.

“Throughout my career I have worked hard to deliver the very best project possible through the resources available, old-fashioned basics of self-reliance, self-motivation, self-reinforcement, self-discipline and self-command. Historic renovations have always been a great challenge, and closing out my career on a project of this magnitude, with the team that is involved with this project, could not be a better way to go. This building has stood the test of time for 112 years and I have had the privilege to preserve it for the next 100 years and beyond.”

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