Thursday, February 18, 2010

Capitol of Light

Published in the Post Register, February, 2010

BOISE – Its timing was certainly awkward at best – a $120 million expenditure at a time when Idaho’s economy was tanking – but there’s little argument about the result.

The “people’s house,” Idaho's Statehouse literally gleams after its two-and-a-half-year facelift that brought the 98-year-old capitol building into the 21st Century while restoring its historical elegance.

The Statehouse had become a dingy, uncomfortable, even dangerous place prior to its restoration.

Originally designed by John Tourtellotte to let the sunshine in, the Statehouse was no longer the “Capitol of Light” Tourtellotte had envisioned. Thirty months and $120 million later, the moniker fits again.

Tourtellotte saw light as metaphor: “The great white light of conscience must be allowed to shine and by its interior illumination make clear the path of duty.” It’s no coincidence, of course, that laws requiring the government to conduct its business in public are called “sunshine laws.”

Not all of the restoration work is obvious to the visitor. There are new smoke alarms, electrical work, elevators, heating and cooling infrastructure and other vital but hidden improvements. Regardless of whether you agree that the scope of the renovation was justified, there was little choice when it came to the basic upgrades.

There also really can’t be much argument about the beauty of the restored building, regardless of one’s views on the cost. The building is open to the public and on a recent day the rotunda areas were full of Idaho companies showing off their wares, and public traffic was steady all day. It’s a spectacular space.

The House and Senate chambers also gleam, and the addition of new hearing rooms has made it more possible for the public to attend debates on bills and the conduct of other government business. There are new gardens and sidewalks east and west of the building.

The undisputed star of the show is the rotunda area under the dome, extending through four floors with an opening in the middle to allow an obstructed view from each floor up to the dome, which is 200 feet above the first floor. If you’re fortunate enough to visit on a sunny day, go to the third floor and walk around the rotunda – you’ll immediately appreciate why the Statehouse deserves its nickname.

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