A citizen’s guide to the Minnesota Capitol restoration

The most jaw-dropping space is the Capitol’s rotunda, the circular open gathering space in the building used for rallies and events.

Like any successful restoration project, much of the work done to fix up Minnesota’s 112-year-old state Capitol building isn’t supposed to stand out.

One of the main goals of the $310 million project, after all, was to restore the building to how it looked in 1905, when it first opened to the public. To do that, construction teams spent three years painstakingly repairing and replacing the building’s crumbling white marble exterior stone, updating old plumbing and mechanical systems and modernizing old designs to meet new safety standards.

But for people wandering around in the newly-opened building for the first time in years, there’s still plenty to look at.

The most jaw-dropping space is the Capitol’s rotunda, the circular open gathering space in the building used for rallies and events. The dome’s ceiling has been restored to a deep shade of blue; everything from the small, half-circle lunette murals to the large paintings of northwest “civilizers” have been redone. Every crystal on the 6-foot wide Capitol chandelier was polished before it was raised 142 feet back up to the ceiling.

Other murals around the Capitol have also been restored to their original, vivid colors, and new (historic) glass elevators show off views from the top floor of the Capitol all the way into the basement. A few things had to change, of course: There are more bathrooms in the renovated building, including toilets for women, who didn’t have any accommodations when the Capitol first opened.

All-new public spaces

But the biggest restoration perk for the public is nearly 40,000 square feet of accessible public space, more than double what was available when the Capitol first opened.

“This is the best part, at least to me,” Curtis Yoakum, spokesman for the Department of Administration, said as he showed off a new circular gathering space in the refurbished basement of the Capitol. Before, the basement was a claustrophobic junction of tunnels as well as the location of the press offices and the Capitol cafeteria. It was an eyesore, with exposed wiring running along the ceiling and mechanical systems sitting out in the open. That’s all underground now.

A new circular gathering space in the refurbished basement of the Capitol.
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
A new circular gathering space in the refurbished basement of the Capitol.

The new public gathering space in the center of the basement mirrors the rotunda above it. Crews used dry ice to gently blast away old paint to reveal original Capitol stone, and tiled floors, restored to replicate the original design, replace old concrete hallways. The first person to use the new L’Etoile du Nord space was DFL Rep. Ilhan Omar, the nation’s first Somali American legislator, who celebrated her swearing in to the Legislature on Jan. 3 alongside more than 100 guests.

Opening up the building for fixes — as well as the construction of a new office building up the street for state senators — allowed crews to gut former staff and legislative offices and lobbyist areas and turn them into public spaces. There are now three conference rooms on the third floor of the Capitol where offices used to be, as well as the plush Cass Gilbert Library. Through a new online system, all of these spaces can be easily reserved for public use. And for those dining at the state Capitol, you can now eat lunch in the historic space where governor’s once used to entertain dignitaries.

There are now three conference rooms on the third floor of the Capitol
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
There are now three conference rooms on the third floor of the Capitol where offices used to be.

The Capitol building also takes in far more light than is used to; crews tore out low ceilings inexplicably added at some point that covered original skylights. And then there’s the furniture: hundreds of pieces, original to the 112-year old building, have been placed throughout the Capitol.

Close, but not quite finished

But the space doesn’t feel completely done — at least not yet.

There’s still a crane looming over the building, and the domes over the Supreme Court Chambers and the Senate are still shrouded in plastic as crews finish their work. Inside, scaffolding still stands on the third floor to repair the last of the murals. And a temporary parking lot in the front of the Capitol still needs to be turned back into a large grassy space, as it looked when the Capitol first opened.

Murals around the Capitol have also been restored to their original colors
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Murals around the Capitol have also been restored to their original, vivid colors.

The Department of Administration is still figuring out what to do with the Capitol’s loggia, a covered exterior corridor on the 2nd floor of the building that was a popular gathering space for lawmakers when the building first opened. It’s been closed to the public for years, but after the restoration, there’s discussion of opening it up for special occasions, Yoakum said. 

New (historic) glass elevators
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
New (historic) glass elevators show off views from the top
floor of the Capitol all the way into the basement.

Anyone looking for the 38 portraits of Minnesota governors that used to line the hallways — those aren’t back yet, either. The paintings were part of a lengthy and sometimes-heated debate over what to do with the building’s artwork. The Historical Society wants to display the portraits in a rotation that groups them by time period, but some legislators want all the portraits back up on the walls.

The governor’s grand reception room is also missing half a dozen giant paintings. As part of the Capitol art debate, four civil war-era paintings will eventually return to the space, but two paintings — controversial for their portrayal of the state’s history with Native Americans — will be displayed in an as-yet-unknown location in the Capitol and accompanied by interpretive plaques to give the art more context. There’s still a lengthy debate expected about any newly commissioned art for the Capitol space, which would require new funding from the Legislature.

The building is open for tours now, but the formal re-opening celebration is August 11 through the 13. 

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by John Clouse on 01/13/2017 - 11:20 am.

    Capitol restoration

    It’s an excellent restoration. All the spaces are lovely. I strongly recommend a Tour.
    The $300 million price tag is money well spent especially considering that it is less than 1/3 the cost of the Viking’s Stadium.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/13/2017 - 01:33 pm.

    I’m not a fan

    …of Victorian-era public architecture, so there’s not much about the building’s exterior that appeals to me, whether it’s been rehabilitated and updated or not. In that, the Minnesota capitol building has much in common with the capitol buildings in Colorado and Missouri, the other states in which I’ve lived. The interior, however, is another matter, and I’m very much a fan of art glass, wood and marble as they appear in the photos, and the addition of more genuinely public space seems to me long overdue, as does the removal of false ceilings to allow original skylights to be…um… skylights. I look forward to touring the building this coming summer.

  3. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/13/2017 - 09:21 pm.

    Why Is It

    That we can update many aspects of the capitol, but some people throw a hissy fit if we even consider any changes in the paintings that are hung inside? Maybe we should have ditched any phone system, much less the internet. How about coal fired boilers?

    After all, that’s the way Cass Gilbert designed it.

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