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Heritage Hall expansion tells MI State Capitol history below the dome

Three people stand in front of a glass case full of artifacts. There is a large sign that reads "The House Chamber" with a picture of the Chamber's room
Kevin Lavery
/
WKAR-MSU
Heritage Hall tells the story of Michigan's three Capitol buildings and important events in the history of the state legislature.

A new 40,000 square-foot underground addition to the Michigan State Capitol is opening its doors on July 5.

The $40 million Heritage Hall showcases the history of the building and state Legislature while offering modern meeting spaces for a range of events.

WKAR’s Kevin Lavery recently toured the new space with Michigan State Capitol Commission Executive Director Rob Blackshaw.

Interview Highlights

On the skylight view of the Capitol dome

If you look up at the skylight, you'll see the views again. You'll see the silhouette of the dome clearly through there. I like to call this [as] my generation [says] a “Kodak moment.” But most people now call it “Facebook friendly” or “Insta friendly.” We know this is going to be a really beautiful shot, taken and posted on most people's social media sites.

On the space's conservation laboratory

We have people on staff who conserve the Civil War battle flags. So, you'll be able to see them care for the collection, to clean, to conserve, to restore some of our Civil War artifacts. So, imagine the educational opportunities that we have here, when we lay out an original Civil War battle flag that still has bloodstains on it from the war.

On the hall's atrium

It's hard to explain the size of 40,000 square feet of additional space, but when you're down here, you can now feel the volume of the space. You can see the skylights that are peaked way to the top. You can see the heavy iron pillars that put this place together and the large aluminum wall of the State Room. This is also a good place for the caterers to touch down to have a nice event. It's more acoustically sound than the first floor of the Capitol, and if they bump their carts against the fabric here, it isn't 143-year-old plaster.

Interview Transcript

HH1.jpg
Kevin Lavery
/
WKAR-MSU
Michigan State Capitol Commission Executive Director Rob Blackshaw stands beneath the skylight that accents the Capitol dome in the newly constructed Heritage Hall.

Kevin Lavery: In just a few days, a new 40,000 square-foot underground addition to the Michigan State Capitol will open its doors.

The $40 million Heritage Hall showcases the history of the building and state Legislature while offering modern meeting spaces for a range of events.

I recently toured the new space with Rob Blackshaw , the Executive Director of the Michigan State Capitol Commission, as final construction was being completed. He started by explaining how the hall will accommodate the large groups of school children who visit the Capitol every year.

Rob Blackshaw: We have now created a facility that's underground, and on Ottawa Street, the buses can pull up in a turnaround, drop them off on a heated plaza. They’ll descend six to 10 feet from the steps, and they’re right inside of a vestibule where there'll be an officer from the Michigan State Police as well as our tour guides. As soon as they come in, they'll be in a warm and welcoming building or cooler building, if it’s a day like today, which is 96 [degrees] out.

Kevin Lavery: So then, this is meant to be much more than a fancy vestibule. This is a truly inclusive, interactive space; a multipurpose space to tell the history of Michigan.

Blackshaw: Absolutely, and not just the history of Michigan, but more importantly, the history of the legislature, the history of the Capitol buildings that we've had in Michigan because we’re in the third Capitol building that we are in right now.

If you step right back here, we’re at the lower lobby. We are already 10 feet below. And what you guys aren’t seeing on the radio is that it’s bright, like it doesn't feel like a subterranean facility.

When we get to the bottom of the atrium, or the State Room; which is our multi-purpose function room, you're 30 feet below the ground, and it still has the feeling that you're just in another facility.

If you look up at the skylight, you'll see the views again. You'll see the silhouette of the dome clearly through there. I like to call this [as] my generation [says] a “Kodak moment.” But most people now call it “Facebook friendly” or “Insta friendly.” We know this is going to be a really beautiful shot, taken and posted on most people's social media sites.

Lavery: We're going to pass a wall that has a pictorial history of Michigan's early Capitols.

Blackshaw: This whole hallway we call our educational corridor. And as you'll see have some static exhibits that are going up that talk about the history of the legislature, the history of the early Capitols. There's also a conservation laboratory. When you come down this hallway, there'll be a piece of glass and behind it, we have people on staff who conserve the Civil War battle flags. So, you'll be able to see them care for the collection, to clean, to conserve, to restore some of our Civil War artifacts.

So, imagine the educational opportunities that we have here, when we lay out an original Civil War battle flag that still has bloodstains on it from the war. It’s living Michigan history, it's just impressive to really see.

HH9.jpg
Kevin Lavery
/
WKAR-MSU
Heritage Hall features exhibits on Michigan's early Capitols.

Lavery: It's truly an extension of history from just a few blocks away at the Michigan Historical Center.

Blackshaw: Exactly right.

Lavery: I have to say that as I'm walking down this slight incline here, with what looks like a marbled floor and black pillars, I can almost envision that I'm in a Smithsonian building.

Blackshaw: You know, there's a lot of institutional buildings that we took design ideas from. Quinn Evans Architects has worked on some Smithsonian buildings. They do know the Capitol building. We wanted to find architectural relevance between the two buildings and have its own identity, so a lot of these architectural features do have those same similarities as you pointed out.

So, now we are in the atrium of Heritage Hall, which is at the lowest level. We are now 25 to 30 feet below ground, and this is where I tell people on the tour to stop and take a look around. It's hard to explain the size of 40,000 square feet of additional space, but when you're down here, you can now feel the volume of the space. You can see the skylights that are peaked way to the top. You can see the heavy iron pillars that put this place together and the large aluminum wall of the State Room. This is also a good place for the caterers to touch down to have a nice event. It's more acoustically sound than the first floor of the Capitol, and if they bump their carts against the fabric here, it isn't 143-year-old plaster.

HH10.jpg
Kevin Lavery
/
WKAR-MSU
Heritage Hall includes a multimedia conference room and reception area.

Lavery: What’s your favorite part of this entire place?

Blackshaw: That's a really good question. I want to say the conservation laboratory. I think it's fascinating when you can see all those old relics and get to see some of the skilled trades go to work that you're not able to see any other time. It is that educational opportunity when you see someone working on conserving on a Civil War battle flag, for instance. It's fascinating to me, and I think it's going to draw a lot of attention.

Lavery: Rob Blackshaw is the executive director of the Michigan State Capitol Commission. We’re standing in the nearly completed Heritage Hall beneath the Michigan Capitol building. It will open to the public for tours on July 5. Rob, thank you for this wonderful opportunity to see all the behind the scenes or under the scenes, I suppose.

Blackshaw: Yeah. Thank you. I’m glad you’re here today.

Lavery: For WKAR, I'm Kevin Lavery.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Kevin Lavery is a general assignment reporter and occasional local host for Morning Edition and All Things considered.
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