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Mar 20, 2014

  • Posted: Thursday, March 20, 2014 12:24 am | Updated: 8:55 am, Thu Mar 20, 2014.

    By David Rookhuyzen

  • As the Legislature winds up it session, a different kind of work has begun in the halls of the Capitol building - not to improve the state, but to restore the shine and prestige of the century-plus-old statehouse.

Crews from Conrad Schmitt Studios Inc. in Milwaukee began removing individual panels from the barrel vault skylight above the building's grand staircase this week to start a months-long restoration process. The actual work to take down the stained glass started Tuesday and by mid-afternoon Wednesday, 60 out of the 90 panels in the skylight had been removed.

Mike Mueller, state special projects curator, said the remaining 30 panels along the bottom of the barrel vault will be cleaned and inspected, but not removed. Because they are not curved and have a more standard grid structure, those panels have aged much better that the rest, he said.

The work on the barrel vault is the second phase in a $2.7 million restoration project focusing on the Capitol's stained glass. The 64 panels in the building's rotunda were removed in August and the large panels over the Senate and House chambers will be removed next month.

After being restored and repaired, the panels will be replaced starting in June and culminating in time for the state's 125th anniversary in November.

The work is being conducted after an assessment last summer showed most of the panels were in poor condition. Most had considerable warping or slumping, with signs of a few inadequate repairs having being conducted since they were installed in 1909. Many panels didn't have frames and were resting directly on plaster. There is even evidence that the panels above the senate and house were installed upside down.

Kevin Grabowski, national projects director for Conrad Schmitt, said the smaller size of the barrel vault panels and their being curved across only one plane makes this part of the restoration the easiest out of the project's four phases.

The barrel vault panels are 32 by 43 inches and weigh roughly 20 pounds. The panels in the rotunda and Senate and House chambers are much larger and heavier, and the glass in the rotunda is curved both horizontally and vertically, he said.

The removal of the barrel vault panels has gone quickly, without surprises or incident. Grabowski said that can be credited to the detailed work that was done before the panes left their resting places.

"Much of the removal process had been done before today," he said.

The panels will be shipped to Conrad Schmitt's studios on Friday to join the other stained glass from the Capitol that is currently being worked on.

Out of the 64 panels from the Capitol's rotunda, 36 have been completely restored and are only waiting to be fitted into custom steel frames, Grabowski said. The remaining panels are in various phases of restoration.

Grabowski said the work in the studio is exceeding expectations, and the restored rotunda panels are much stronger than before, even without the steel frames. They have also returned to their former luster.

"Even someone who is not an expert can look at the before and after photos and say 'wow,'" he said.

Barbara Johnson, who has studied stained glass over the past five years with a grant from the South Dakota Humanities Council, was on hand as part of her study into the original makers of the glass.

Johnson has been hunting for the original manufacturer since last summer, but so far has not found any hard evidence of who created the panels. She is hoping that among the soda cans and candy wrappers that make up the debris around the top side of the panels, there may be some older clues from the time the glass was installed.

"There is always the chance there is one small remembrance of what the installers left behind," Johnson said.

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