Construction reveals hidden history at State Capitol

History is being rediscovered at the Capitol building in Cheyenne. The building that was originally opened for business in 1888 has some hidden secrets in its walls.

The Capitol building was built in phases, the first in 1888, the second in 1890 and the final phase in 1917. It was renovated haphazardly over the next 129 years in the 1940s and 1970s when a lot of the building’s history was covered up and hidden.

Riverside High School graduate Wendy Madsen (Pederson) led a small tour last week of the Capitol Construction Project’s progress. Madsen now works as a special projects manager for the Wyoming Legislative Service Office.

“I’m so happy people in Basin get to see what is going on here in Cheyenne,” Madsen said.

Revealing the History

As crews began working on the massive $299 million project, which includes Capitol restoration, remodel and expansion of the Herschler building, along with other things in the Capitol Square, they started to notice that bits of history kept revealing themselves at every turn.

A hidden door was found between two walls on the third floor of the Capitol building. Crews working knew a doorway was there from old plans, but they didn’t expect to find the door in perfect condition.

Suzanne Norton, the Capitol Square’s architectural project manager, said the door was covered up by construction crews in the 1940s and has remained hidden until now.

The door, she added, would probably be able to stay where it is now; the one-of-a-kind door handle, however, will be removed. The door handle was built in the late 1880s early 1900s, and no other door handle was found or was known to be in the Capitol.

“The door will stay there; the door knob we will probably be used somewhere else in the Capitol or will be displayed in the museum,” Norton said.

The door, along with other finds, opened up the past to workers on the project.

Old Cheyenne Opera House posters were found in the ceilings. Though no one knows how old the posters are, they are believed to be from around the year 1856 or 1857.

“No one has seen these posters in 126 years,” said Mike O’Donnell from Wyoming Attorney General’s Office, who has been working on the project.

Norton added that the wood the posters are placed on is from an old fence.

“There are lots of examples in the Capitol that they used the material they could find or recycle for the construction the original building,” said Norton.

The posters will remain in the ceiling and covered up with the construction. Norton added that they would more than likely be destroyed if workers tried to remove them but added that they may try to replicate them with pictures they have taken.

Other objects like an old leather glove, a chisel and steel stamped with the Carnegie name on it have all been found in the Capitol, as well.

Architectural history has been rediscovered through this process. Arches found at the garden level of the Capitol were rediscovered by crews as they tore through the layers of ceilings. “The ceilings are higher than anyone expected,” Madsen said.

She pointed out the levels of paint so one could see how the ceilings were lowered over the years by foot after foot. Windows that were partially covered up by the ceiling will now be restored at full height, allowing more light to flow into the rooms of the capitol.

Pillars that were covered up by walls in the governor’s conference room and the treasurer’s and secretary’s offices will now be resorted to their former glory.

“We have done a lot of damage for years. It’s time to let her go back to the way she was,” said O’Donnell.

One of the most exciting spaces to be renovated for both Madsen and Norton is the Historic Supreme Court Chamber.

The 1888 Territorial House Chamber, which was later occupied by the Supreme Court in 1890, will be restored on the second floor. The construction crew will be eliminating a partition wall and reclaiming the two-story volume and public balcony. The 1889 Constitutional Convention was held in this room and is the reason the Capitol has earned a National Historic Landmark status for its historical significance to the women’s suffrage movement.

Norton added that the Capitol is not a historic landmark for its architecture, it is for the decision that was made in that room to give women equal rights.

“The history permeates your skin when you walk into this place,” said O’Donnell.

Crews discovered a hidden door in the media room following the partial demolition of a wall. The well preserved door came as a shock to workers — while they knew of the door, they did not expect to find it in such great condition.  Photo by Mathew Burciaga
Crews discovered a hidden door in the media room following the partial demolition of a wall. The well preserved door came as a shock to workers — while they knew of the door, they did not expect to find it in such great condition.
Photo by Mathew Burciaga

Restoring the Crumbling Structure

While finding the history is an added bonus to many involved in the project, the main purpose of the project is to fix the crumbling infrastructure of the building.

“When you look at the Capitol she is very photogenic, but she was falling apart,” said Norton.

The Capitol has very little smoke detection and no smoke evacuation or fire suppression systems. If a fire were to break out, occupants would have less than five minutes to evacuate safely. Exit signs and staircases are limited in the building, as well, making it even harder.

“Can you imagine what 126-year-old wood that is in the center of the building would do if it caught on fire?” said O’Donnell.

Twenty-five percent of the Capitol also does not have heating or cooling systems. And it lacks modern information technology systems including audio and visual capabilities.

Rusted plumbing and cracked pipes could also be found throughout the building.

Addressing the infrastructure needs and code-related issues in the building will reduce the usable square footage by about 10,000 square feet.

New vertical HVAC chases and system cores will be located on the northeast and northwest side of the 1890 sections of the building extending from the roof to the garden level, which will modernize the building.

Public restrooms will go from three to six.

On the exterior of the building the metal roof had years of hail damage, and many things were being held up by small metal wiring. There were many areas of loose sandstone that posed a safety hazard to people.

According to Madsen, the sandstone will be restored or replaced. All replacement sandstone will be from the original quarry the stone came from more than 100 years ago.

The exterior fire escapes that often made evacuation difficult and dangerous have been removed, and internal staircases will be added.

The metal windows on the Capitol will be replaced with wood to match the historic windows that had been removed over the years.

The complete Capitol Square Project will be completed in mid-2019.