For the next three to four months, the central rotunda of Idaho’s state Capitol will become a noisy construction site.
The entire rotunda, on every floor, will be closed off as immense, six-story-high scaffolding is constructed to allow delaminating glass in the highest reaches of the Capitol’s dome to be replaced. The work even affects the basement, or “garden level” rotunda. There, heavy-duty reinforcements have been installed from floor to ceiling to support the first floor so it can take the weight of the scaffolding and an industrial materials hoist.
The construction of the scaffolding, according to state Department of Administration Director Keith Reynolds, is “a big undertaking, and it is the majority of the cost with the replacement. It’s not the material, the glass itself. It is that structure to be able to get up into those upper reaches.”
Reynolds said the state has been working toward a solution to the glass issue since 2015; there’s been litigation with the contractors from the big Capitol renovation that occurred from 2007 to 2009, in which sections of the historic glass in the dome were replaced. A cost-sharing agreement was reached; the state will bear about $550,000 of the cost of the $1.1 million-plus project.
The glass in question is glass that appears to have chicken wire embedded in it; it’s the historic type of shatterproof glass that preceded modern safety glass.
“Those pieces of glass are formed in sheets, with the wire embedded in between, and then heated up,” Reynolds said. “So it’s a separation that’s happened.”
The delamination that’s already occurred is visible as odd round circles that have appeared on some of the glass panels in the dome. But that’s not the main concern. The biggest concern: If the glass panels were to fail, they could fall out and crash all the way down through the Capitol rotunda.
“No one has said it’s imminent, no one said, ‘Close the area off,’ ” Reynolds said. “No one has said that. It’s an abundance of caution, that we have been told there’s a possibility of failure, so we’re going to get that glass replaced.”
In the process of investigating the problem and planning for the solution, the state discovered that additional panels replaced even before the big Capitol renovation also were having the same problem. Those, too, will be replaced.
Reynolds said the panels have to be replaced with the wired glass, rather than modern safety glass.
“It’s a historic preservation issue, is part of it,” he said. “It would require then to replace all the glass in the rotunda so everything was the same. Otherwise you’d really get a difference in how the light was coming in, and it would be noticeable.”
The design of Idaho’s Capitol is heavily reliant on natural light, and how it filters into the building through skylights and light shafts. That’s led to the historic Capitol building lyrical nickname, the “Capitol of Light.”
The original Capitol architect, John E. Tourtellotte, wrote, “The great white light of conscience must be allowed to shine and by its interior illumination make clear the path of duty.”
When asked if there was any other way besides the construction of the lofty scaffolding to accomplish the glass replacement, Reynolds said numerous options were explored.
One possibility investigated was “where we might have some anchors that were higher up, and hopefully invisible inside the rotunda, so we could lower and raise a lift, sort of like the old-fashioned window washing. It just ended up not being practical. We talked about cranes.” Multiple glass experts also were consulted.
“We will use the best methods and any method to be able to get the glass in place,” Reynolds said.
The work started earlier this month, first on the garden level, then on the rotunda’s first floor; it’ll move up from there. A temporary wall will be constructed around the rotunda to allow the entire Capitol to remain open through the construction and people to safely access the areas on all sides of it. Some areas, including Statuary Hall on the Capitol’s fourth floor and other areas with skylights adjacent to the rotunda, will have temporary closures as part of the work.
“We’ve been assured they’re doing it so there’s not a safety risk,” Reynolds said.
The contractor is the same one that did the original Capitol renovation work, Jacobsen-Hunt Joint Venture, which includes Salt Lake City-based Jacobsen Construction Company Inc. and Indianapolis-based Hunt Construction Group Inc.
The Capitol Commission unanimously approved the project, and the expenditure, in November 2020, and announced the start of the work Thursday. Under terms of the legal settlement, all work must be completed by Nov. 15.
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