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Tennessee State Capitol Gets a Facelift, Other Fixes

December 2012
Grey Line
Renovations to 153-year-old building completed

TN State CapitolInside the State Capital after $15.7 million renov...: The state Capitol will reopen Dec. 17 after renovation that includes new building systems, cosmetic fixes and security upgrades.

Tennessee Commissioner Steve Cates gives a tour inside of the Tennessee State Capitol on Friday, Dec. 7, 2012. / Shelley Mayes The Tennessean

To keep a building that predates the Civil War running, eventually you have to gut it.

 The Tennessee State Capitol will reopen Dec. 17 after a $15.7 million reconstruction, its most serious facelift in more than five decades. With improvements that range from better lighting to beefed-up security, state officials hope the project will keep the seat of Tennessee government in commission for years to come.

“The big thing is, the building will be more comfortable,” said Steve Cates, commissioner of the Department of General Services. “We won’t be taking chances on the building having to be not used for a couple of days because of the systems.”

Prompted by the building’s crumbling infrastructure, workers began tearing apart the Capitol’s inner workings soon after the legislative session ended in May. They will complete the project in time for the General Assembly, Gov. Bill Haslam, the state’s constitutional officers and their staffs to move back in before lawmakers begin to take up the state’s business in early January.

Nashville-based Hardaway Construction led the effort. State officials said they will complete the project under budget.

The renovation has preserved most of the building’s interior, which was restored in the late 1980s. The biggest changes have taken place behind the walls, where plumbing had aged to the point that it was affecting water quality and the building’s air conditioning system broke down frequently.

Replacing the Capitol’s innards presented many challenges, officials said.

A layer of rubble lies beneath each floor, helping to stabilize the building. Engineers had only a few, 8-inch troughs through which to run ductwork for the Capitol’s new, 300-ton air conditioner, forcing them to come up with alternative methods for circulating air within the building.

Scaffolds were needed to reach the Capitol’s high chandeliers because the winches that raise and lower the fixtures had fallen into disrepair.

The building’s artwork, including portraits of Tennessee’s past governors, had to be warehoused in the state museum during the project. Restoring and replacing the Capitol’s Wilton and Axminster carpeting, which dates to the Victorian era, meant contracting with a pair of specialty companies, including the English company that produces it.

Even the walls and ceilings required special attention. Generations of hair oils had to be drawn out of stone walls behind public benches using a poultice. Care had to be taken to ensure that a 1950s mural on the walls of Haslam’s office suite wasn’t damaged. Plaster on the walls and ceiling was replaced and repainted with an eye toward historical accuracy.

“Home Depot’s not the solution,” Cates said.

Nods to the modern age include improved wireless Internet access and permanent security desks at each entrance equipped with machines to scan photo identification cards. Cameras are now visible throughout the building.

Tighter security comes as capitols in other states have become frequent battlegrounds between lawmakers and protesters. Tennessee officials said they do not intend for the security upgrades to reduce access to the building.

“The public shouldn’t see much different,” said Peter Heinbach, executive director of building commission relations. “This is the public’s house and so we needed to maintain it that way.”

On Friday, the first wave of staffers was already moving back into the building. Clerks tested the buzzer system used to call lawmakers into the legislative chamber.

Standing in the building’s spacious rotunda, Cates said one of the few areas that had not been touched by the restoration was the landmark cupola that rises above the Capitol itself. Cates said it, too, will have to be restored in time.

“There’s always going to be a renovation project,” he said.

Contact Chas Sisk at 615-259-8283 or

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