Oklahoma delegation tours renovated Kansas Capitol

OKLAHOMA CITY – Kansas recently completed what Oklahoma is poised to start – a massive, multi-year overhaul of its State Capitol – and several Oklahomans made a trip to Topeka this week to see the results.

“What they’ve accomplished is nothing short of spectacular,” said state Rep. Jason Dunnington, D-Oklahoma City. “It’s a beautiful building.” Dunnington took the oath as a new member of the state House of Representatives this month.

Construction on the Kansas Capitol started in 1866 and was completed in 1903, a Kansas tourism employee said. A multi-year restoration of the building started in 1999 and finally was completed this year. The entire renovated building was reopened to the public about five months ago.

A delegation from Oklahoma drove to Topeka before Thanksgiving to tour the rehabilitated capitol.

During the two-hour inspection, “We went everywhere, from the bowels of the building on up into the House and Senate chambers,” Dunnington said. The Kansas restoration project was “massive” and resembled the looming Oklahoma project in many ways, he said. For example, it entailed the replacement of deteriorated water and sewer lines and dilapidated electric and telephone lines in a building that has four wings, five floors plus its dome.

“They encountered so many difficulties like the ones we expect to find,” said John Estus, director of public affairs for the Oklahoma Office of Management and Enterprise Services.

“In many respects, their capitol was in worse shape than ours is,” Trait Thompson, State Capitol Project Manager with OMES, said Wednesday. “One Kansas official told me they were ‘just a few years away from demolition by neglect’. That pretty well describes our situation, too.”

A key reason Oklahoma officials have visited with their counterparts in Kansas is because, “We want to learn lessons from them about what we should do and what we should not do,” Thompson said. “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel.”

Kansas legislators and other state officials and employees continued performing their routine duties while the extensive, time-consuming renovation work proceeded.

Oklahoma’s century-old capitol is likewise expected to remain open throughout the renovation program. “We cannot shut this building down,” Capitol architect Duane Mass said earlier this year. “It has to be a modern, functioning office building.”

Oklahoma’s 452,000 square-foot capitol was constructed of steel-reinforced concrete between 1914 and 1917. The rehabilitation project will take an estimated four to six years to complete and cost perhaps $120 million to $160 million. “It’s an issue of deferred maintenance,” Thompson said. “It won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap.”

The building’s facade is crumbling. Barricades have cordoned off the south side of the structure since 2011 to prevent visitors from climbing the steps of the south portico, because chunks of mortar and pieces of limestone are falling.

Visitors also must walk beneath scaffolding topped with plywood to reach an entrance way on the building’s southeast corner to avoid the falling debris. In May, a four-pound chunk of concrete crashed through a House employee’s office in the basement, an area that has since been evacuated.

“There’s 100-year-old wiring in this building, and there are cast-iron pipes you can stick your finger through,” Mass said.

Work on the Capitol’s exterior is expected to begin at the end of this year, with interior work projected to start at the end of 2015.

“This will be an investment in our future,” Dunnington said. “It’s a magnificent building and we need to preserve it for future generations.”

While in Topeka the Oklahomans huddled with the Kansas Capitol architect and were greeted by Kansas Speaker of the House Ray Merrick, who described the capitol as “Kansas’ face to the world.” A Kansas delegation graciously hosted their visitors to a lunch.

The 10-hour round-trip “gave me an opportunity to dialogue with my Republican colleagues,” said Dunnington, one of the brand new elected members of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

“I am delighted that Jason wants to play an important role in this project,” said House Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City. “Many of the legislators who authorized the renovations to our capitol will be termed out of office by the time they are completed, but Representative Dunnington, who is just starting his service in the Legislature, is well-placed to oversee the project to its completion.”

Besides Dunnington, other Oklahoma legislators who made the trek to Topeka included freshman Rep. Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston; Rep. Harold Wright, R-Weatherford; freshman Sen. Stephanie Bice, R-Oklahoma City; Sen. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City; Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond; and Sen. Susan Paddack, D-Ada, a member of the State Capitol Repair Expenditure Oversight Committee (SCREOC).

Other members of the delegation included Steve Mason, chairman of the SCREOC; Brian Downs, House Speaker Jeff Hickman’s chief of staff; Matt Glanville, press secretary for Senate President Pro Tempore Brian Bingman; Thompson; and OMES Director Preston Doerflinger, Government Relations Director Dana Webb, and Estus.

Also on the Topeka trip was Capt. John Paul of the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, the newly appointed commander of Oklahoma Highway Patrol Troop R, which is responsible for security at the State Capitol. He was accompanied by DPS Lt. Tom Pogue and OHP Trooper Steve Burton. All three met with Kansas public safety officials to discuss and review security measures that were implemented during the capitol restoration project.

NOTE: State Rep. Dunnington took the photo accompanying this story.