A work in progress

Renovated State House is reopening, but redesign and restoration continues

December 23, 2008|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,laura.smitherman@baltsun.com

The State House is reopening after an eight-month, $10 million renovation, though planners are far from completing the wholesale redesign - and a more visitor-friendly experience - they envision for the historic building.

Construction crews have repaired an aging heating and cooling system, updated a plumbing system that was in danger of rupturing and replaced unsafe electrical wiring. With that work in the final stages, moving trucks pulled around State Circle to unload boxes and furniture yesterday, and Gov. Martin O'Malley was in the building.

The nation's oldest operating capitol is expected to fully reopen to the public the second week of next month - when the next legislative session begins. In the meantime, most of the 80 people who work year-round in the State House are expected to be back at their desks in next few weeks.

But work on the building must go on, according to state archivists and others who have worked on a long-term plan to "reimagine" the experience of the 200,000 tourists who visit the State House every year. That renovation, which could take years, would restore the old legislative chambers to their 18th- and 19th-century glory and add touches such as updated signage.

"The whole idea is to really make a very exciting and interesting and engaging experience for visitors to come to the State House, especially students," said Mimi Calver, the project manager for the Maryland State Archives.

How long this latest renovation will take likely depends on available funding, which could be severely limited as the state faces a yawning $2 billion shortfall in the next fiscal year. A spokeswoman for O'Malley, a Democrat, declined to comment on whether he would fund the projects, saying the governor is still crafting his annual budget.

The Annapolis State House has been the site of seminal events in American history. It served as the U.S. capitol from November 1783 to August 1784, when the Continental Congress met in the old Senate chamber. Also in that chamber in 1783, George Washington resigned his commission as commander of the Continental Army, helping to establish the primacy of civilian authority over the military.

To commemorate the 225th anniversary of that event, O'Malley, along with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch - all of whom serve on the State House Trust - sponsored a private gala dinner with about 65 guests last night. They hoped to raise at least $10,000 toward the cost of a state-of-the-art case made for Washington's speech, which the state acquired from a private owner in 2007.

The public will be allowed into the old Senate chamber at noon today to attend a re-enactment of the speech that Washington read. It is one of the few times the document has been on public display.

A master plan for upgrading the State House to be more tourist-friendly was completed in March 2007, and another plan for refurbishing the old House of Delegates chamber came a few months later. C&G Partners, a design consulting firm that worked on the tourist plan, warned of declining tourism and said that schoolchildren might stop visiting unless exhibits were made more relevant.

Both plans envision multimillion-dollar projects, and some suggestions were incorporated into the renovation, such as the creation of a public woman's bathroom on the ground floor. Also during the recent renovations, a wall between the Calvert and Silver Rooms was knocked down to make space for the re-creation of the old House chamber.

Calver said planners hope to restore the old House chamber to the way it appeared about 1878 to introduce more history from the 19th century, when the state constitution was written, and that an architect is doing infrastructure work there. An architectural investigation of the old Senate chamber has been undertaken to determine how to restore it in a style appropriate to the 18th century.

"The beauty of the State House is truly the history associated with it," said Connie Del Signore, president of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Conference and Visitors Bureau. "We're very eager for the building to reopen. ... And any enhancement is going to be great."

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