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After many years of contentious debate, new handrails were unveiled in the Montana Capitol building's grand staircase Thursday, a move state employees and politicians agree will make the building much safer.

"We all know instinctively that safety is key to living the life we choose to live," Sheila Hogan, director of the Department of Administration, said at an unveiling ceremony Thursday. "Things like handrails really do make a difference."

Hogan told the crowd of about 50 people gathered inside the Capitol rotunda that approximately 350 slips, trips and falls were reported by state employees last year, only one-third of which were due to ice.

The installation of the new handrails will address long-standing safety concerns inside the building, where tile floors and marble stairs become slick with ice and snow melt in the winter months, especially when the Legislature is in session.

"We all benefit from the addition of a handrail," Hogan said.

At the ceremony, Norma Jean Kelly, president of the Capitol Restoration Foundation, presented the department with a $10,000 check to help pay for the $300,000 project.

The money was raised through the foundation's annual holiday ornament sale and was presented to honor the late Betty Babcock, who was one of the first people to advocate for the installation of a handrail on the staircase.

"She would call up legislators and spend hours on the phone with them," Kelly said of Babcock.

Kelly, Hogan and others in attendance emphasized how special the new handrails are, especially considering it is the first time the historic staircase has been altered since it was constructed 112 years ago.

"It is a rare moment when we alter the appearance of this very special building," Lt. Gov. Angela McLean said Thursday.

"The grand staircase has never changed," she said. "We are altering one of the most well-known, most photographed areas of our Capitol."

State Architect Tom O'Connell said he wasn't sure if the simple, bronze rail running through the center of the staircase was ornate enough to match the intricate details of a massive 2001 restoration project in the rotunda area, but said Thursday he is thrilled with the finished product.

"Bringing it back to its original, what I call glory, was very important," he said of the 2001 project, adding that the handrails "blend with the ornamentation here."

As the installation process was nearing completion, O'Connell said he overheard a tourist comment on how the people working on it were "polishing the old rail." The remark solidified his hope that the new handrail would match the historic feel of the rest of the building.

"The comment from the tourist said it all," he said. "We nailed it."

"This is a big change for the stairs," O'Connell said. "This gives people a way to get up and down here in a safe manner."

"This is truly the people's house," he said.

"The Capitol is Montana's crowned jewel and I believe the handrails will be another jewel in the crown," he added.

Editor's Note -- This story has been changed to correct the amount donated by the Capitol Restoration Foundation. 

Julie Baughman can be reached at 447-4086 or julie.baughman@helenair.com.

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