BY MICHELLE MILLHOLLON
Capitol news bureau
July 11, 2012
For construction workers, the end of the legislative session ushered in a busy season at the State Capitol.
Workers are ripping up floors, breaking through walls and removing ceilings to give the 81-year-old building that Huey P. Long built an internal facelift to combat age and weather. Their work is expected to stretch into January.
A $14.7 million project to upgrade the heating and air-conditioning system is in the fourth of five planned phases. Efforts also are under way to make $1.4 million in repairs to the breezeway under the Capitol’s front steps.
“It’s just age,” Capitol facilities director Pat Pickens said Tuesday. “This is really a fascinating old building.”
The State Capitol was built in 14 months at a cost of $5 million and opened in March 1932.
Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, and his staff vacated their first floor offices to accommodate the HVAC work and repairs to floors that are original to the building’s construction.
Alario said he hopes to be back in his office by the end of the year. “My office has paneling so hopefully they’re not painting in there,” he joked.
From the state Senate offices, construction workers will move down the hall to House offices for similar repairs.
Besides disrupting office space, the work closed a committee room hallway, resulting in Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera standing in puzzlement outside the corridor recently as he tried to determine how to reach his meeting. The new route is a maze-like course that involves whisking down a private elevator and then winding through the basement to reach the only Senate meeting room not affected by the construction.
For the most part, though, the public likely will experience minimal effects from the construction.
The 27th-floor observation deck remains open. Tourists still can peek into the chambers where the Louisiana House and the state Senate meet. They can study Jules Guerin’s murals in Memorial Hall, a huge space that separates the two chambers.
Near the entrance to Memorial Hall is an architect’s secret that helped in the building of the towering Capitol and is aiding modern day construction workers.
The HVAC work will end the building’s reliance on steam in favor of hot water, Pickens said.
To hoist the necessary piping to attic space above Memorial Hall, construction workers will climb through a double wall that conceals a vertical shaft designed to allow materials to be lifted several stories, he said.
Some of the air conditioning system dates to 1952 while other parts are 40 years old, Pickens said.
“It’s old. It’s antiquated, inefficient,” he said.
The renovations were funded through the state construction, or capital outlay, budget over more than a decade.
Workers tackled the building’s tower, or upper floors, in the project’s first phases. Next came the Senate basement. The current phase focuses on the ground, first and second floors. The final piece will be to complete HVAC improvements to floors three, four and five next year.
As workers peel away building materials, original beams, flooring and bricks are exposed. Someone left their mark inside a wall on the Senate side of the State Capitol, writing the year 1983.
The ground floor breezeway, which was not originally enclosed, has required multiple repairs over the past few years.
Half of the breezeway underneath the front steps currently is covered in scaffolding. The reason why is evident in the way the stones at the top of the breezeway wall tilt slightly.
Pickens said the ceiling is suspended by supporting wires that somehow got clipped over the years, resulting in a flattening of the arch.
“I don’t want to speculate,” he said on how the wires could have been clipped.
The breezeway accommodates a snack stand, drink machines and two public entrances.
Soon after the session ended, construction workers began tearing down half the ceiling, which they will replace and reset the stone in an effort to fix the flattening and weatherproof the area. Once they complete one side, they will move to the other half of the breezeway.
Another approach to the problem was dismissed.
Pickens said the idea was tossed around to remove the stones from the Capitol steps and apply a weatherproofing cover to protect the breezeway. The stones, as many schoolchildren know, bear the names of the states.
He said the idea quickly died because of the chance of breakage.
“Those stones are irreplaceable,” Pickens said.