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Behind the Walls

By Royce Williams

It took $3.2 million to erase the damage from a
fire in the State Attorney General's Office on
January 1,1992. The most recent renovation of
the building includes a sprinkler system for the
structure Photo courtesy: BSU Archives,
Statesman collection

Once upon a time there were ashtrays in the Capitol.

Sounds odd today, since a smoldering cigarette butt anywhere in the building would cause five people to throw their bodies across a smoky tendril rising from a bit of shredded tobacco.

But when the Capitol was closed down for the New Year's holiday in 1992, there was no one to douse a spark left alive on a cigarette. The fire had time to build in the empty Attorney General's offices, and although the entire building had been designed to keep fire at bay, there were carpets, drapes, paper out- and in-baskets, wood desks.

After a security guard noticed the fire late in the afternoon on January 1, he pulled the manual fire alarm (smoke detectors apparently had not worked), and 50 firefighters were called in to douse the flames. The fire was out in about 45 minutes.

Fire, smoke and water damage cost nearly $3.2 million to repair, and the cost could have been greater had the heat from the fire busted the glass walls opening onto the rotunda. It did break windows in the offices, giving the fire the outdoor oxygen it needed to do greater damage. There was smoke and water damage to the second floor offices, some damage, too, for the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee (JFAC) meeting room (old Supreme Court) upstairs, where the coming year's budget projections were stored.

Part of the repair costs went into a sprinkler system for the Attorney General's Office. Once installed, the system got people thinking about the rest of the building. There weren't sprinkler systems in any other part of the building. The snowball of reconstruction, renovation and expansion of the Capitol started rolling downhill.

Seventeen years later, the work was done, and on November 12, 2009, a certificate of completion was handed to the Chairman of the Capitol Commission Andy Erstad. The things done list was a long one, but near the top of the list was a new sprinkler system for the building, both old and new sections. The only areas in the new Capitol without sprinklers are the rotunda, the senate and house chambers, and the JFAC meeting room. In these areas it was impossible to install piping for sprinklers and keep the historic integrity of the rooms.

But the threat of a major fire played a huge role in the original design of the building in those first years of the 20th Century. John E. Tourtellotte and Charles F. Hummel had designed 190 buildings before the partnership won the Capitol contract. They were working at drafting tables in the old brick Eastman Building on 27 more buildings, including the Capitol, in 1905. Many of these buildings would use materials that weren't fire-friendly.

They didn't need a reminder of destructive fire, but they got one just three years into the construction of the new Capitol, when thick smoke began rolling out of the next-door Central School building. The cause of the fire was unclear, but probably involved faulty wiring in the attic of the 4-story building, being used at the time for temporary state offices and deaf and blind students waiting for a permanent school to be finished. No one was injured that early December morning, but the fire confirmed that sandstone, marble, brick, along with steam heat was the way to go on the Capitol.

Builders of the State Capitol did not need a reminder of the frequency of devastating
fires early in the 20th Century, but they got one in 1908, when fire broke out in the
attic of the Old Central School. While the Capitol was being built, the school was
being used for temporary state offices. The school was torn down in 1919 to make
room for the Senate wing of the Capitol. Photo courtesy: ISHS

The decisions proved correct, for it was 80 years before a reportable fire occurred in the structure. A major reason for that good record was geothermal heat, Idaho's Capitol being the only one in the nation that uses hot water for heat. And the heating system was among the first systems Jacobson Hunt tracked when it took over the Capitol project. Fresh from a major renovation of the Utah Capitol, the heating system in Idaho was a new experience for the company.

They decided to replace the entire system - mechanical, electrical and plumbing. Making that happen, with both wet (hot water) and dry (ventilation), was relatively easy in the tunnels connecting Capitol buildings. But pushing that system through spaces between steel, brick and sandstone... Well, it paid to be skinny.

And none of the work of replacing pipes designed nearly 100 years ago and replaced with just-designed insulated pipes is visible, hidden now behind those mahogany boxes under the large windows or behind those frosted windows that are lit from behind to keep the theme of natural light, so much a part of the original design. Among the maze of pipes behind these windows are completely new plumbing and water pipes, only visible now at a spigot in a bathroom or at a drinking fountain in a hallway.

Another major challenge was the nearly century-old electrical wiring. It had not worked perfectly from the beginning. At the Capitol's grand opening when the outside of the building resembled a Christmas tree as darkness fell, the wiring failed and most of the lights went out. There was a major blackout in the building in 1976, and none of the wiring met modern codes as the 30-month renovation began.

Ninety-three miles of electrical wiring had to be replaced inside the building, and seven miles of feeder line to bring power into the building is new and hidden underground. Stretched end to end, the wire would reach from Boise to Lewiston. Some of it could be threaded through the space between marble and brick and behind molding, plaster and under flooring. Nearly half the wiring had to be threaded through conduit, and some of that required drilling holes in brick walls. There are 43 miles of conduit. All of it - with no wires crossed - made its way to 2,945 light fixtures, 1,205 outlets, 243 light switches.

Wiring, both for electricity and communications, had accumulated over the century, but little of that was removed when new wiring had been added. Every time contractors removed acoustical tile from a ceiling or pried up flooring, they found huge bundles of old, dead wire. Tons of it was recycled before new wiring could be installed, all the work done with lighting coming off generators. All the phone and data lines have been replaced, and wireless Internet is possible throughout portions of the building. It is an indication that communications between government and citizens has moved out of the rotunda and into office computers and cellphones.

Architects took fire prevention into consideration in the Capitol's design — sandstone,
brick, concrete, marble and steel. Photo courtesy: Hummel collection

But when the new Capitol opens on January 9, not all of the work will be behind walls.

If people look down, they will notice 12,520 yards of new flooring. There will be 43,164 square feet of new marble, mostly in the underground wings. This marble matches very closely the nine different marbles used in the original building. That took quite a bit of searching, according to Project Manager John Emery.

Going back to the original quarry 100 years later, he says, you find the stone today is a mile farther into the quarry than it was when the original marble was bought. That means a slightly richer color and small changes in the graining. There was a special problem with the salmon-colored marble Tourtellotte used for trim. The quarry in Alaska where the original architect ordered the marble is now under over 300 feet of water, the result of an earthquake. But that quarry had put aside some blocks of the red marble, and it was enough to replace trim in the old building. The trim marble in the wings is of a slightly deeper red, but fits because it's never abutted with the original. Only an expert stonemason will notice the difference.

What's certainly visible to any visitor is the mahogany in the building. There are 22,500 linear feet of it in the old building, and 65,933 board feet of it in the new wings.

Tourtellotte had used the dark wood both to direct the eye to office entrances and to contrast with the white walls and light-colored marbles he had used to reflect natural light from the skylights. Much of the mahogany in the original building simply needed to be scraped, sanded and refinished, except for the windows. Installing heavier double-paned glass in these windows would have taken too much time (money), so the windows, the rope and pulley system in each, and the casings were simply bought new as a package. And with modern lighting, along with skylights in the new wings and modern fire prevention, more marble paneling could be used there.

In his original paint specs, Tourtellotte used the word white over and over. Even the metal (fire-resistant) storage cabinets in the basement should be painted with white enamel. He was specific, too, about anything that covered the white spaces. Keep wall-hangings to a minimum, and none at all was best.

But since there was a minimum of color choices available in 1905, the new century painters figured they could get away with two colors - white, of course, but a color called millet (coffee with too much cream), would give the white a lot more punch. It took 3,680 gallons of both colors to get the effect they were after, best illustrated in the ocului in the dome of the rotunda. Here the cream gives the white depth and brings out the intricate patterns in the ceiling.

In this work, and much more, the state has spent $120 million, all of it coming from a tax on tobacco products. That fact should give the 1992 New Year's smokers and the person who dumped an ashtray into what was thought to be a fireproof trashcan room to stop apologizing for an accidental fire.