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100 years after being excluded from the Minnesota State Capitol, women rebuilt it

Rebekah Hudson
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Rebekah Hudson directed hundreds of people working on the interior historic renovation of the rotunda, House and Senate chambers and Supreme Court chamber.

When the Minnesota State Capitol opened to the public and legislators on Jan. 2, 1905, it was a modern wonder, with a dazzling white marble exterior and the latest technology: interior lamps that ran on electricity.

But there was something notably missing from the project, and from the group of legislators and construction workers gathered in St. Paul to celebrate the occasion: women. 

Women didn’t work on the construction crews that built the Capitol, and no women were part of architect Cass Gilbert’s original design team. And since there were also no women serving in the state Legislature, the original design of the Capitol didn’t even include women’s restrooms.

Fast forward more than 100 years, as crews finish up work on a massive $310 million project to restore the Capitol for the next 100 years: restoring murals and plaster work in every corner of the building; installing and carving massive slabs of marble on the exterior; rewiring the building to make it a modern workspace. Everyone agrees: It wouldn't have happened without women.

From the state senator who introduced the first bill to catalog the damage to the state Capitol to the electricians, painters, architects and construction workers, women played an integral part of the building’s restoration — at every level. This time around, when the Capitol celebrates its official reopening in August, there will be a lot more women at the party. 

“Every meeting you go to, every time you turn around, it was mostly women at the table,” said Ginny Lackovic, an architect and historic preservationist who spent years working on the Capitol. “I’ve never had a project like that, with such a representation of women from every angle, at all levels.” 

The legislator: ‘I couldn’t really get anybody to listen’

Ann Rest has spent plenty of time in the hallways and chambers of the Minnesota Capitol. First elected to a seat in the state House in 1984, the DFLer from New Hope eventually moved her way up to the state Senate.

More than a decade ago, she started noticing little signs of decay around the building: paint peeling away on the many Capitol murals, water damage in the walls. Over the years, legislators had handled issues with the aging Capitol building on a case-by-case basis. Rest suspected there was more to be done, but she hard time rallying other legislators to the cause. “I felt like I couldn’t get anybody to listen to me,” said Rest.

Sen. Ann Rest
Sen. Ann Rest

So about a dozen years ago, she quietly offered an amendment to a state department funding bill. The amendment allocated $100,000 to plan and study the scope of restoration projects needed for the interior of the Capitol. Little did she know that the money would be the first spent on what would snowball into a massive $310 million renovation. It turned out that the murals throughout the entire building were chipping and peeling away, the water damage was worse than anyone thought, and chucks of the marble on the exterior were falling off the building.

Rest stuck with the project as it got more complicated, both logistically and politically. As the price tag grew, so did legislative disagreements about how it should proceed. Republicans and Democrats argued over who would have space in the newly renovated building, since the Department of Administration said there was no way all 67 state senators could have their offices inside the renovated Capitol. 

So four years ago, Rest quietly added an amendment to the tax bill that authorized the planning and funding for a new Senate Office Building, a controversial project that became the subject of a lawsuit and more than a few attack ads, but now sits on the north side of the Capitol. She also co-sponsored a bill with Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, another point person on the project, to create the Minnesota State Capitol Preservation Commission, which helped develop the multiyear plan for the restoration.

“It didn’t even occur to me how much it actually was going to take to reimagine Cass Gilbert’s vision in today’s dollars,” Rest said. “It was a wake-up call to us to start thinking of our role as stewards of the Capitol building. We were really neglecting our duty to make sure that this building stayed in good shape and was restored.” 

A new modillion block of marble next to a deteriorated one.
Courtesy of JE Dunn Construction
A new modillion block of marble next to a deteriorated one.

The architects: ‘There’s a lot of discovery’

In 2005, when the state first started digging into the damages in the interior of the Capitol building, they called up HGA Architects and Engineers in Minneapolis. The initial plan was to get a comprehensive look at the interior of the building and the damages done over the last 100 years.

That’s where Ginny Lackovic got involved. The HGA architect and historic preservation specialist started noticing things “no one was even thinking about,” including the crumbling stone on the entire exterior of the building. 

Ultimately, the the smaller scale, interior-only restoration morphed into something much bigger, in part based off of HGA assessment reports. As the project grew over the years, so did the team working on it. Kimberly Sandbulte was brought on as project architect on the interior restoration work, while Debra Young was one of the top managers on the overall project, working with architects, construction teams and engineers.

HGA Architects
Courtesy of HGA Architects
From left to right: Ginny Lackovic, historic preservationist; Angela Bateson, HGA intern; Kimberly Sandbulte, project manager; and Debra Young, project manager.

“I think there’s this misunderstanding about what architects do, that as soon as the drawings are done and out the door that we’re done,” Lackovic said. “That’s usually just when it starts. On a project like this, there’s a lot of discovery.”

The HGA team pored over Gilbert’s original drawings of the Capitol to get a sense of his original vision for the Capitol, but they also had to update some facets of the structure to make it a modern office building, one where hundreds of people work every day.

“It needs to be an office building that works for legislation, and it’s also a historic monument,” Young said. 

“There were moments where it was really odd to think about how long this building has been here and how much has changed in the course of 100 years,” Sandbulte said. “This building is still here and we can bring it into the modern era and think about, what’s going to happen in the next 100 years? And what legacy are we leaving behind?”

The project manager: ‘They got out, we got in’

During the construction and restoration of the Capitol, Rebekah Hudson liked to brag to her co-workers that the building was made from sturdy white marble from Georgia, where she grew up.

Hudson calls herself a Minnesotan now, after she joined the team at Minneapolis-based JE Dunn Construction, which was contracted to work on the Capitol restoration. Hudson is a project manager, meaning that at times she directed hundreds of people working on the interior historic renovation of the rotunda, House and Senate chambers and Supreme Court chamber, all on an incredibly tight timeline.

Rebekah Hudson
MN Dept. of Admin.
Rebekah Hudson: “I don't really like just sitting at my desk. I love being involved and seeing a project from the beginning to the end.”

It was so tight that Hudson and her crew were waiting for legislators at 12:01 a.m. in May of 2015, as the lawmakers gaveled out the session, so the workers could move in and start work immediately, removing desks and furniture and putting up scaffolding. While other Capitol tenants moved out of the building during the restoration, the House needed to be able to access its chamber every year during session. “As soon as they got out, we got in,” Hudson said. 

Hudson got a civil engineering degree and initially planned to do more design work, but she fell in love with construction on a job in Georgia. Before coming to Minnesota, she worked on a $600 million project on the Department of Homeland Security headquarters in Washington. 

“I don't really like just sitting at my desk,” she said. “I love being involved and seeing a project from the beginning to the end.” 

The stone carver: ‘Some of it is just zen’

With her graduation from high school looming, Mimi Moore wasn’t sure where she would go next. She wasn’t drawn to any field in particular, but she knew she liked to work with her hands. Almost by chance, she saw a brochure for a program in architectural stone carving in her home state of South Carolina, so she signed up. Moore fell in love with the trade, she said, because it combined hands-on work with history. “It just clicked really hard for me,” Moore said.

Since then, Moore, now 30, has worked on various Capitol restoration projects around the country, including the Kansas, Utah, and New York state Capitols. She’s spent the last three years in Minnesota working exclusively on the statehouse, hundreds of hours carving the fine, decorative details into white marble pillars and cornices across the building. It was slow and tedious work, with Moore nearly developing a disorder called “white finger,” an industrial injury triggered by continuous use of vibrating hand-held machinery.

Stone carver Mimi Moore
Courtesy of HGA Architects
Stone carver Mimi Moore spent the last three years in Minnesota working exclusively on the statehouse.

“Some of it is just zen,” Moore said. “It’s romantic and cliché, but it’s true. You have to love the tediousness.”

The project required a lot of time away from Moore’s husband and her home in Missoula, Montana. But her home could be changing: Moore loved her time in Minnesota so much that she’s in talks with her husband to move here. 

The electrician: exploring untouched spaces 

Brienna Quinn was on track to be a veterinarian until a temporary summer job doing electrical work changed her trajectory. She loved the work, so she shifted gears to enroll in a three-year program in Fridley to be an electrician. While getting her degree, Quinn, 22, was offered a daunting job: to help wire up the 112-year-old Minnesota Capitol to operate like a modern workplace. 

Quinn specializes in so-called low voltage work, like wiring up telecommunication systems, internet and security systems. Some of those systems were in place when the restoration started, but the project required a complete redo of the state’s wiring and networks. It’s taken all three years she’s been in school to finish the Capitol project.

after shot
Courtesy of Mimi Moore
An "after" image of the stonework Mimi Moore was working on in the previous photo.

“I’m not a person that likes repetitive work, and in this job you learn something new every day,” Quinn said. “You are always doing something, and you are never sitting around.” 

Quinn’s favorite part of working on the Capitol was crawling into the small, cramped attic spaces that have been untouched for decades. There, she would discover newspapers and pop cans left there decades ago, the last time workers were up in the smallest nooks in the building.

There aren’t many women in her electrician classes, Quinn said, but she’s noticing more working out in the field, particularly on the Capitol project. “It’s growing a lot now,” she said. “There were quite a few women on this job — a lot more than you see on other job sites.”

The painter: ‘When you walk in, it just wows’

Working on the Minnesota State Capitol was like returning home for Emily Litjens. She currently lives in Milwaukee, where she works as a painter with Conrad Schmitt Studios, but she previously spent a decade living in the Twin Cities and attended the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

After college, she worked with a woman-owned business that specializes in decorative painting in homes, but historic work was always in the back of Litjens' mind. As part of the Capitol project, she spent another a year and a half back in Minnesota, trying to restore the decorative painting in every corner of the building that had been damaged or dulled over the years. “It was pretty daunting at first to put paint on something that’s over 100 years old,” she said.

Emily Litjens adding detail to an oak leaf swag in a main corridor of the East W
MN Dept. of Admin./Cathy Klima
Emily Litjens adding detail to an oak leaf swag in a main corridor of the East Wing.

Now that the building is nearly ready for its grand reopening celebration, Litjens loves seeing everything put back as it was supposed to look, with some improvements.

“When I started this project there was no plumbing, no electricity,” Litjens said. “You were working in these areas where you don't understand the grand scale of the building. Now when you walk in, it just wows.”

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Comments (4)

Great Story!

Thanks to all the skilled workers that have put life back into our great Minnesota State Capital. Thanks to all the women who participated in the renovation bringing their magnificent skills to the project. Thanks to my Senator, Ann Rest from New Hope, for having the curiosity, foresight, and courage to start the wheels rolling and sticking with it until the mission was accomplished. A great accomplishment accomplished by working together.

Women and Capitol renovation

I love this. Women really can do anything. A woman directed the renovation at my church--a huge, multimillion dollar project. It was SO successful.

Ginny Lackovic

I have had the pleasure of serving on the Historic Resources Advisory Committee with Ginny Lackovic. She is as sharp and perceptive as they come. Congrats to her and the entire team for a job well done on the restoration.

Women's role

Thanks to Briana for bringing the role of women in the capitol renovation. Our gratitude to Ann Rest for noticing the capitol's decay and started the ball rolling for renovations. Today's construction workers do include many more women in the architectural and construction company's staff. I was editor of Construction Bulletin before the magazine folded and, as I interviewed contractors, they told me about many qualified women they hired.