PHOENIX – For decades, the century-old Arizona Capitol has served as the home of a state museum that attracts mostly school classes and tour groups.
But now there’s renewed talk of putting the copper-domed building back in the business of hosting at least part of working state government.
A task force appointed by legislative leaders and consisting partly of lawmakers is considering the possibility of using the Capitol once again for legislative offices, hearing rooms or even floor sessions.
Some task force members say the Capitol could also serve as the centerpiece for a new legislative complex consisting of new buildings to house the House and Senate – and maybe even light a fire under the state’s upcoming centennial celebration in 2012.
Opened in 1901, 11 years before Arizona became a state, the Capitol initially housed all territorial officers. The state government continued to operate out of the Capitol for decades after statehood.
But the Legislature moved out of the Capitol’s cramped quarters and into two then-new House and Senate buildings around 1960. The governor and other state officers now work in either an attached nine-story office tower or nearby state buildings.
But the status quo isn’t satisfactory to many state government insiders.
The Capitol itself is considered to be in fairly good shape, thanks partly to a recent renovation of the museum portion that included installation of fire sensors and sprinklers. Recent reviews found the Capitol needs painting and roof work as well as new restroom plumbing fixtures.
“Structurally, this building is in very good shape and we’re proud to have it,” said Paul Scott, a private engineer who recently examined the building. “It was built very well.”
However, the House and Senate buildings are regarded as overcrowded and, in some aspects, falling apart. The Senate, in particular, has been plagued by plumbing problems.
The House and Senate buildings also are regarded by critics as eyesores compared to the Capitol.
The Capitol is beautiful, “but then we put these two big box buildings in. Then we put a tower in,” said Rep. Jake Flake, a former House speaker who has called for construction of new legislative buildings. “We ought to be ashamed of the looks of our Capitol. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves the way we pieced these things together.”
The legislative leaders who commissioned the task force told it to consider possible new functions for the Capitol. However, task force members said it doesn’t make sense to focus just on the Capitol without considering whether the Legislature could and should get new quarters that could be literally next door to the Capitol.
Steve Gervais, a Pinnacle West Capital Corp. employee and task force member, said the original Capitol could be used to connect two new legislative buildings, providing a public entry that could include a staircase included in the original design but never built. Gervais also served on another state advisory panel that earlier this year looked favorably on ideas by Arizona State University College of Design students to double the current House and Senate buildings’ space.
One would erect new legislative buildings to the west of the Capitol. A second would erect new buildings to flank the Capitol just to the west of current House and Senate buildings. The third would expand the existing buildings and add an underground building to connect them.
A $500 million price tag was mentioned when those proposals were discussed.
Gov. Janet Napolitano’s wish list for the current state budget included asking lawmakers for $14 million to plan and design a new House and Senate structure and a new 1,200-space parking garage.
However, the appropriation didn’t make the budget’s final cut last spring, and Napolitano later said she only proposed it because she knew of some legislators’ interest in getting new quarters.
And since then, the state’s budget situation has taken a major turn for the worse. Meanwhile, former Phoenix Mayor John Driggs said efforts to raise $5 million in private and federal funding to trigger a $2.5 million state appropriation for the 2012 centennial have languished.
A Capitol project could be “a great opportunity” to pump new vitality into the centennial celebration and provide a lasting legacy, Driggs said. “It will cause our centennial effort to come alive.”
HISTORICAL FACTS ABOUT THE ARIZONA CAPITOL
• The Capitol was dedicated Feb. 25, 1901. Construction cost: $135,774.29.
• The original design by James Riely Gordon included a massive exterior stairway leading up to the second floor, which would be used as the public entrance. The stairway wasn’t built because of cost, so the entrance is on the first floor.
• The copper industry donated 15 tons of copper to cover the roof and dome. The dome is shiny because it has been treated to prevent tarnishing.
• When the Capitol opened, the electricity to operate the elevator was purchased from the street car line that ran on Washington Street.
• More than one type of stone was used for exterior walls. The first floor was made from granite. Tuff stone was used for the second, third and fourth floors.
• Bullet holes were found in the dome’s Winged Victory statute when it was removed for renovation.
Source: Arizona Capitol Museum and secretary of state’s 1986 Arizona Blue Book.