HELENA –Montana’s State Capitol in Helena is 115 years old. Over the course of more than a century some things have changed. But as it stands now, it is the closest it’s ever looked to the way it did when the doors first opened.It only takes a few minutes with state architect Tom O’Connell to know how he feels about the building.
“If you haven’t figure out by now that I love this building,” says O’Connell, “then I’m not expressing myself well.”
He’s worked in Montana state government for 45 years and knows the changes the Capitol has been through.
Taking a walk through the building with him is a personal tour unlike any other.
“I doubt if most people are going to explain that these used to be glass blocks and these brown lines are where the beams were. I doubt if people are going to say, ‘Do you see the state seal on those globes?’ or ‘Do you look at those door knobs and see that those have the state seal on them?'” said O’Connell. “Those sorts of things get missed because you try to take in the whole space.”
And there’s a lot to take in, as your eyes sweep the room and are drawn to the dome.
It’s the details you see now that take you back to the Capitol’s origins, something that was lost for awhile when it was renovated in the 1960’s.
“The story goes that there was a mail cart coming down the hallway and a wheel of that mail cart went through the floor. And people started to say, ‘What’s going on with our state capitol? That precipitated the 60’s remodel job,” said O’Connell.
He says the main rotunda floor was made of glass blocks that let light shine down to the lower level.
But it was built on cinders: “The concrete had not enough structural strength.”
But what was done in the 60’s went beyond structural repair.
O’Connell says the rotunda in particular was “modernized” to the times. That meant some of the beautiful woodwork and decorative painting was covered with other materials.
Even the barrel vault – a key focal point – was removed and a floor laid to create a room.
“The arch that you see was torn out. The beam that you see was a floor poured all the way to the back. And it was a like a tax room or something.”
In part two of our series on Wednesday: how the 2000 renovation brought the State Capitol back to its original grandeur and how one state senator played a pivotal role in making it possible.
Reporter: Melissa Jensen