OKLAHOMA CITY — Architects and engineers are peeking behind ceilings and walls inside the nearly 100-year-old Oklahoma Capitol, while workers outside are studying the building's cast-iron window frames and poking at the mortar between giant limestone blocks that form the building's exterior.
What they're finding isn't all that pretty — in some cases decades of decay and often shoddy repair work — that is expected to quickly eat through the $120 million allocated for the project by the Legislature last year.
"I think $120 million was the starting point," said Rep. Mark McBride, a Moore Republican and a member of the committee overseeing the project. "I don't think anybody had any misconception that it wasn't going to be more than that, because we are finding a lot of problems."
The polished marble floors, plush carpeting and priceless artwork inside the Capitol belie serious structural and mechanical problems with the building, which was constructed between 1914 and 1917.
Bill Parks, a tour guide at the Capitol for 15 years, said with the exception of the barricades that block pedestrians from accessing the grand staircase, most visitors don't notice any signs of disrepair.
"Of course, we don't go behind the walls and doors to see the plumbing or the electrical problems," Parks said.
Aric Gilliland, who visited the Capitol Thursday with his wife and four children, said the most obvious sign of disrepair was a ramshackle scaffolding erected at the entrance of the Capitol to keep falling pieces of mortar from falling on visitors to the building.
"The kids didn't know if we should be here, since we had to walk under that scaffolding," Gilliland said. "They thought we were going the wrong way."
While replacing the hodgepodge of plumbing, electrical and mechanical systems in the Capitol will be a major undertaking, historic preservationists conducting a room-by-room analysis of the 452,000-square-foot building say much of its historic fabric remains in good shape.
"One of the interesting things about the decorative plaster ceilings that we're finding above the ceiling tile is that even though it has been damaged because they put mechanical equipment up there, most that's still in place is in really good shape," said Stephen Kelley, a historic preservation specialist from Illinois hired to work on the project. "Everything we're finding is in fair to good condition, and it can be brought back. It's not like it's falling apart."
The same can't be said for the building's exterior, where large chunks of mortar and limestone have fallen from the facade, prompting officials to block access to the grand front staircase.
Outside, scaffolding has been erected at three separate locations and tests are being conducted to determine the best way to proceed with repairing loose mortar between giant limestone blocks that has allowed moisture to seep in and rust the steel anchors that hold the blocks in place. In some cases, water is pooling behind the stone, which can cause portions of the limestone to crack and break off when the water freezes.
The front of the limestone also has become discolored in many places with an orange hue that resulted from previous attempts to cover the stones with sealant.
"We're fighting a battle against previous repair jobs on the building," said project manager Trait Thompson.
Most of the building's more than 500 windows were built using cast iron frames that were cemented into the building.
"The frames were not meant to ever come out, as far as I can tell," said Bobby Snyder, vice president at JE Dunn Construction, which is overseeing the exterior renovation. "The problem is these windows are not very energy efficient. And that's being polite."
Still, the exterior of the building has its own gems, including hand-carved pieces of limestone with eagles, lions and other intricate designs.
"The people who constructed this building really poured their heart and soul into their work," Thompson said. "They'll never build like this again, and we need to make sure future generations get to enjoy it like we do."
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