Andy Erstad of Boise has been a member of the Idaho Capitol Commission since 1998 and is the only licensed architect on the Commission. Most of this interview was conducted in early 2009. A follow-up interview was conducted in October of 2009.
Do you remember when Gov. Phil Batt asked you to join the Capitol Commission? I was tremendously honored. This is the state's building and this is the state's house and it was an opportunity to give back. I learned under the tutelage of Charles Hummel, and it was a very interesting opportunity.
I had been involved in a number of historic renovations and restorations of projects that the firm had done, so I had an inkling of what lay ahead. As we got further into it, it became very apparent, the magnitude and the depth at which we were going to have to go into this grand old house, to bring it back to contemporary times while not losing any of the historic flair.
What was it that worried you? Walking around with the head of the division of public works, who was in charge of this building, he made a funny comment that he felt the building was probably held together with all of the leftover tele-data communication wiring. With each new company that came in to do communications, the old companies would just abandon their wires which were strewn all around and hidden in places we didn't see. We knew at that point that undoing 90+ years of maintenance and technology changes was going to be a significant challenge.
And then the other challenge that became apparent was: could the artisans be found to repair the scagliola? Were we going to be able to get comparable marble? Were quarries even open? Were veins where the stone came from even mineable? So those challenges always present themselves in historic restoration/renovation. The design team and the contracting team took away the fears quickly as we got into the process.
This has been a bit of a roller coaster ride, hasn't it? After the withdrawing of the first appropriation, a lot of the commissioners were disappointed but never lost faith, and a lot of the legislators never lost faith, and the governor didn't lose faith, and I think that kind of leadership gave us the signal that something was going to happen. We knew something had to happen; and we knew that if we could weather the storm and get into the right cycle, which is what we did, we would eventually get the project funded and the vehicle to complete the work necessary.
The mantra has been 'on time and on budget,' and we were really delighted when John Emery from Jacobson Hunt came into the commission recently and said, I'd like to deliver the building a day early. He said there's just something about fighting November 13th that is a little unsettling, so we'd like to turn it over Thursday, November 12. And we were very fine with that.
Budget-wise, of course we don't see all the numbers until the final accounting; but all of the indications right now are that the project came in on time and under budget.
Most Idahoans probably had no idea what would be attempted with this project. It was the commission's intent that this project bring back the glory of the building. We talked often about the fact we weren't going to make this look like a brand new building on the outside. We were going to preserve, repair, renovate areas that needed it, but we weren't going to go in and sandblast the exterior shell to make it look brand new. That would have been in complete contradiction with the goals â€“ and it would have put undue wear on the building.
Behind us is the statuary hall, which had been broken into a couple of offices; a drop ceiling put in; the pilasters and the molding just cut right through. No sensitivity. It was business as usual. We needed some offices and that's how we were going to achieve them.
So, as these spaces re-emerged, as the team got back to the historic fabric of the design and the intent of the design, we were able to bring those spaces back. And I think the people who thought, 'oh it's a little paint, it's a little polish,' really will be surprised when they come in and see the changes and the improvements.
Everyone seems to like the new Statuary Hall. Is it still your favorite room? I remain in the camp of the Statuary Hall for one reason: it's the one room that, in a very simple way, we could see all of the things poorly done to the Capitol over the years, and how deliberate treatment and respect of the original design could bring back such an amazing space.
It symbolizes in my mind the fruits of the commission and the fruits of everyone working on the project. It was basically a modified office space at the expense of the simple beauty that it embodied; and that beauty has been returned to the people.
You were there to see all of the dropped ceilings, the cut-up moldings and trims, the cut-out vaulted ceiling. Those were all utilitarian moves to create office space in a space that was never anticipated for offices. So for the design team to be able to come back and the artisans and the contractor and everyone involved to come back and create a beautiful statuary room, it sort of epitomizes the global effort that was undertaken.
I love the Statuary Hall, but I also get the luxury to step back and say, this is an amazing building. Everything about it is amazing; and every time I walk through it, I get to see something new, even though I may have walked past it two days before. It just is growing on me in a complete form now.
There is that old saying in our industry, that the devil is in the details, or the design is in the details, and I believe that the design is a holistic response; and it's the wide-angle view, and it's the close-up view; and if the close up view doesn't work, it really challenges the wide-angle view to work. In this building, I believe it all works beautifully.
The original architects — John Tourtellotte and Charles Hummel — were pretty sharp, weren't they? The design of the building is remarkable from a number of standpoints. First, it was phased. It would accommodate growth, it would accommodate the rise and fall of budgets, and it would ultimately become the iconic statement for the state's house. Who would have expected a classical style building in the central Idaho plains that referenced really, the power and the strength of a young state and a growing state?
Tourtelotte and Hummel did a marvelous job of designing a building that spoke to the people, that created a sense of awe, that was ingenious in its design in terms of bringing light and ventilation in. Of course, when this building was first designed, there wasn't air conditioning; electric lights were somewhat limited.
A lot of the things we value today and a lot of the things that are actually coming back into the renovation and the restoration were things that were not even possible back in those days. The fact that we're able to bring them back in and maintain the framework is pretty remarkable.
Our hats go off to the original designers who were able to have the vision and the opportunity to build something that could grow with the ages and not be totally changed. In fact we are undoing some of the original changes in the 1950's and '60's, to get back to Tourtelotte and Hummel's original design.
Do you think they would have approved of the new wings? The design team spent so much time studying the original drawings and the original design; and the proposal to do the underground wings preserved the original design intent. In other words, you have no new structures projecting up in front of either the east or the west wing. You see skylights and a low stair tower and some small ventilation shafts, but you don't see a building obscuring the original design.
When Tourtelotte and Hummel designed the building at the turn of the century, they designed it so that it could be phased. And the design team took that same notion and added the underground wings to accommodate the growth of the state.
And with the addition of those wings, we pick up auditorium space, public hearing space, offices for a growing legislative wing. The opportunity for the capitol to be brought back to its grandeur is enhanced because, prior to having those spaces, people were pushed into every little nook and cranny, and the use was modified and changed. So we have that great opportunity to recapture those spaces and bring them back to their glory, like the Statuary Hall.
Just the scaffolding in the rotunda was pretty impressive! The scaffolding is almost a building in itself! It's a tremendously expensive structure that needed to be put in place in order to do the work. The work included removal of distemper paint which is no longer used. It created problems for applying new paints on top of the dome inner surface.
We had to create this infrastructure in the dome so that the workers could touch every single surface. The dome is spectacular, and it requires that somebody fix all of the age-old blemishes, remove the paint and then come back in and repaint for the next 100 years. That's a very tactile exercise, so the scaffolding was put up to provide that support system.
Similar scaffolding was put up in the senate and the house chambers in order to repair and restore those ceilings as well, so you actually build within the structure in order to undo and redo, and then you take down that scaffolding, and it reveals the beautiful work that everyone has done.
Initially the top of the scaffolding was at the top of the dome so you had the opportunity to actually go up and get to the very top oculus before you get into the very small piece, the lantern.
As a commissioner and as an architect it would have been great fun to devise a method where you could kind of peel away the layers of the onion and let people see the work going on inside just for the pure awareness of how much work has gone into this building. It's easy to look at the outside and see a bunch of construction trailers and a bunch of plywood protecting all the great stone and the entries, but there is not a lot of indication of what is going on inside; and I think people would have a different appreciation if they recognized just how complicated the scaffolding behind us was.
How do you think Idahoans should view this massive undertaking? I think the attitude of some will be negative. The attitude of some will be incredibly positive. The hope from my perspective as a commissioner is that people will look at the renovation and recognize that we have preserved the state's house for another hundred years, and that we have put into motion technologies and systems that will allow easier integration of new technologies in the future.
We've spent a lot of money on the project, and we feel that that money will carry the building well into the future; and it's preserving an asset that is irreplaceable. So the option was to do nothing and get to a point where fifteen or twenty years down the line, it becomes a life-safety issue, and we either have to lose the building because it's too expensive to fix at that point, or we do it now and we preserve it for the future. And we make it a working capitol, but a fabulous state-of- the- art working capitol.