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MI State Capitol celebrates 30th anniversary of major restoration

211022_Michigan_State_Capitol.jpg
Myesha Johnson
/
WKAR-MSU

This month marks the 30th anniversary of the Michigan State Capitol’s major restoration project. At times, designers had to get creative to restore the building to its former glory.

The Capitol building in Lansing is an icon of Michigan. The towering white dome and ornate interiors make the building a popular destination for tourists and school field trips.

The Capitol is currently designed to look as it did when it first opened in 1879. But for much of the 20th century, that wasn't the case. And it took nearly $60 million dollars, plus a lot of elbow grease, to restore its condition.

The Michigan State Capitol dome towers above portraits of the state's governors.
Arjun Thakkar
/
WKAR-MSU
The Michigan State Capitol dome towers above portraits of the state's governors.

Rob Blackshaw is the executive director of the Michigan State Capitol Commission, a group charged with maintaining the building's historical presence. He calls the work "a labor of love."

“It is a labor of love for everyone here, it gets in your blood, and then everyone’s just so happy to come to work because it's a beautiful building and working in beautiful surfaces,” Blackshaw said.

The restoration project began following a period of change in the state Capitol. In the early 20th century, state officials prioritized efficient design and removed Victorian elements from the building. They also added sublevels to the main floors to create more office space for employees.

Blackshaw said that led to overcrowding and decay in the building, and the state didn’t provide enough funding for repairs.

“They deferred a lot of maintenance because the budgets weren't put in place to maintain the building the way they should have," Blackshaw said.

Officials considered creating another Capitol and making the current building a museum, but those ideas were ultimately disregarded.

In the 1980s, the government decided to restore the original layout of the Capitol and make necessary updates to the building’s infrastructure. Legislators worked in buildings across from the Capitol. Officials removed the subfloors and hired archivists and skilled artisans to study the building’s historical look. That enabled workers to restore interior embellishments.

 A display case from Heritage Hall showing how painters made Michigan white pine wood look like the brown English Walnut used in the original building design.
Arjun Thakkar
/
WKAR-MSU
A display case from Heritage Hall showing how painters made Michigan white pine wood look like the brown English Walnut used in the original building design.

According to Blackshaw, the restoration made the Capitol the largest display of Victorian decorative arts in the U.S. The site was also designated as a National Historic Landmark following the project's completion.

Planners had to get creative to replicate some of the prior Victorian designs. Blackshaw said designers used “faux arts” to imitate some of the more expensive materials. Designers painted Michigan white pine wood to look like both marble and brown English walnut. Blackshaw said they did this to cut costs without compromising aesthetics.

"Really it was all Michigan products, again painted to look like the most grandiose materials because we couldn't afford it at the time,” Blackshaw said.

Another item that came from the restoration was a set of door hinges and knobs. The designers created reproductions of the original pieces using molds. They’re finely detailed with Michigan’s coat of arms, and Blackshaw said that makes them popular.

“When you go to a general building or any building today, everything is metallic, it doesn't have the detail," Blackshaw said. "The door knobs have the state seal on it, the ornamentation on that hinges on the doorknobs. So everyone really enjoys looking at the the amount of time and effort that was put into that.”

Blackshaw says the work of historical preservation is an ongoing process. He adds plans are underway to resurface upper levels of the dome next year to keep the building’s historical integrity intact.

Arjun Thakkar is WKAR's politics and civics reporter.
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