On Saturday evening, Utah's premiere public building, the Utah State Capitol, will close for four years. It will close for renovations, the cost of which will come to $200 million.

When the project is finished, the Capitol will be safer than ever before. It will be safer from earthquakes and fire and evil-doers. Asbestos and lead will be gone. Even traffic safety will improve, when pedestrians have their own walkways. There may even be a new roundabout at the top of State Street.

The Capitol will be modernized as well, with better access for people with disabilities. It will have new plumbing and sewer, new wiring, double-pane windows and energy-efficient lighting. It will have new communications systems, including one for video conferences and production. In the offices, hardwood floors will be restored. High ceilings will be uncovered.

The Capitol will be totally updated — and yet, it will look like it did when it was new, back in 1916. With underground parking and a new plaza, bordered by two new office buildings, the entire Capitol Hill will be more formal and imposing. The Hill will, for the first time, look like the place it was designed to be.

If you were to walk through the building right now, with David Hart, architect of the Capitol project, you could get a preview of what the public will see on Aug. 7. On that afternoon, every Utahn is invited to a celebration given by the Utah Heritage Foundation and the Capitol Preservation Board.

Lisa Thompson, of the Heritage Foundation, says they are hoping at least 1,000 people will come to the party. The open house offers a chance to take one last look inside the Capitol, to see the demolition that's already been done, to see the new Senate and House office buildings, and to learn about the restoration.

Architects and engineers will give tours. Kids will get to mess around with gold leaf and go on a treasure hunt and win a prize.

Visitors will see plans and specs and a model of the seismic base isolators, the rockers that soon will be eased into place under the building — to help it stand instead of crumble when the "Big One" (earthquake) comes.

Everyone gets a photo taken, too. And then you are invited back, in four years, to have your picture taken again in the same place. You'll be able to see how you've changed and how the place where you stood has changed. (Here's one hint: When you come back in four years, you won't be standing on the same green tiles that now cover the floor beneath the rotunda. Originally these squares were made of glass. The main floor was designed to let light filter down to the floor below.)

When Hart describes the research leading up to the remodeling, his voice speeds up in excitement. He makes the years of research sound like an adventure. He talks of uncovering pieces of parquet. Uncovering the egg and dart design in the cornices. Finding the original paint in the governor's office — a beige wash used to cover the walls before the fabric that had been ordered finally showed up.

Hart talks of analyzing the soil on Capitol Hill, of digging down more than 300 feet and never finding bedrock, only sand and silt.

He talks of searching for, and never finding, the original chandeliers from the governor's board room. (If you know where they are, please call him.) He talks of coming across, quite by accident, the Olmsted Brothers' original site plans.

When pressed, Hart can explain his assignment in simple terms: Make the Capitol safe, make it functional and make it like it was.

A longer version of his assignment can be found in a thick sheaf of paper titled "The Utah State Capitol Planning and Historic Structures Report," prepared by the architectural firm of Cooper/Roberts.

Historian Martha Bradley's portion of that official report explains how the Capitol came to be.

Bradley tells a story that begins in 1888, with the city's gift of 20 acres for a Capitol on what was then called Arsenal Hill. In 1909, Gov. William Spry asked the Legislature to create a commission to seek a design. That same year voters turned down a one-mill property tax to help build the Capitol. In 1910 and 1911, bills passed to allow for $1 million in bonds and $1 million in loans.

The Capitol commission (comprising the governor, secretary of state and various businessmen) hired the landscape architecture firm started by Frederick Law Olmsted to design the site. John Olmsted came to Salt Lake City, looked at the hill and said you need more ground, in every direction. You can't build an inspirational structure 10 feet away from a little iron fence and a house.

The commission members were undeterred and went about holding a design contest. They hired a local architect, Richard Kletting, to design the Capitol itself. Kletting had designed the Salt Palace and Saltair and the Deseret News building.

Bradley says Kletting agreed with Olmsted: We need more land. So the state started to buy up adjoining property.

About this time, a wealthy citizen died. His name was Edward Harriman, and he had been president of Union Pacific Railroad. His widow had to pay 5 percent of his estate, as a death tax, to the state of Utah. With that extra $750,000, everyone felt better about starting construction on the Capitol.

The result was a lovely structure, not unlike the capitols of other states, of neo-classical design with a dome and columns and wide marble halls. It was a perfect space. The Supreme Court chambers were located a stately distance from the governor's office, which was set off from the legislative chambers — thus was reinforced the concept of the separation of powers.

Unfortunately, government tends to grow as the population grows. Over the years, offices have been added to that original perfect space, and walls have been erected, haphazardly. When planning the restoration, one of the most important tasks was to figure out how much space was actually needed, now and in the future.

Hart says when the consultants took into account all the space to be lost from the Capitol basement (which was being used for offices but now will house the base isolators) and added that to the growth projected for the next 25 years, they figured the renovated Capitol would be about 160,000 square feet short of what was needed.

What to do? Planners explored the cost of renting space, during the remodeling and beyond. Then they looked again at Olmsted's plans, which showed three buildings to the north of the Capitol. One was in the approximate position of the current State Office Building.

The planners recommended tearing down the old Roundhouse cafeteria and constructing two additional buildings, and the Legislature agreed. The Senate office and House office buildings sit at right angles to the Capitol, pretty much where Olmsted had drawn them on his plans nearly 100 years ago.

The governor and the lieutenant governor and the justices and the legislators and all those who worked in the Capitol have already moved — some of them for four years and some of them for good — into the new buildings. Those two office buildings will be dedicated on Saturday, on the same day that the Capitol closes for remodeling.


If you go

What: Capitol Discovery Day, tours given by architects and historians on the last chance to be inside the Capitol for four years. There will also be hands-on fun for kids and adults.

Where: 300 N. State

When: Saturday, Aug. 7, noon to 4 p.m.

Cost: Free

Contact: Phone, 533-0858; Web, www.utahheritagefoundation.org or www.utahstatecapitol.utah.gov


E-mail: susan@desnews.com