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Leaky skylight threatening artwork at Capitol to be repaired this year

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Tom O’Connell, administrator of the state's Architecture and Engineering Division, uses a laser pointer to highlight maroon paint peeling away to reveal the white plaster below around the dome of the Old Supreme Court Chamber in the Capitol building.

“See that whole section, that’s water coming through and causing damage and you see how close it is to the artwork,” O’Connell said last week on a tour of the Capitol.

The artwork is seven paintings by the Cincinnati firm F. Pedretti’s Sons, oil on canvas painted in 1902 and hung like wallpaper around the dome of this room.

There’s the Gates of the Mountains, which Montana’s first and fourth Gov. Joseph Toole asked to be depicted. Across the dome is Meriwether Lewis catching his first glimpse of the Rockies. To the side, President Benjamin Harrison and Secretary of State James G. Blaine sign Montana’s Constitution.

“These are not the most valuable paintings in the Capitol” -- that would be the massive C.M. Russell painting at the other end of the building in the House chambers -- “but from an historic standpoint you still want to protect them,” O’Connell said.

The skylight will be fixed this year. It’s the top priority among the deferred maintenance projects in the Capitol, said Steve Baiamonte, administrator of the General Services Division.

That’s not because it’s in the worst shape among the six in the building. There are four large skylights and two small ones, all built in either 1901 or 1911 -- except for the one over the barrel vault, which was put in around 2000 when the vault was restored during an extensive renovation of the Capitol.

“The others are probably about equal shape because they’re all roughly the same age, give or take a decade,” Baiamonte said.

General Services, which is the landlord and steward of the Capitol, as well as all state-owned buildings within a 10-mile radius of Helena, gets money appropriated from the Legislature for deferred maintenance projects like this. This biennium, Baiamonte said, the division was appropriated $3.2 million for projects that also include flooring, fire suppression work and elevator improvements.

O’Connell’s department oversees all architecture and engineering projects on state-owned facilities in the complex. It has hired A&E Architects of Missoula to work on the skylight. That firm has been out to the Capitol twice, the most recent time to look at the skylight from the superstructure above it and begin to figure out the best way to address the leak.

“At this point, it’s not known how much it will cost to remedy the situation,” Baiamonte said. “We always look at not what is low bid or the cheapest, but what is best for the building and all the users.”

O’Connell said he thinks a full replacement is needed for the original skylight, which is made of thin steel and glass.

“We think it’ll take a new structure. If it’s anything different than that, I’d be extremely surprised because the structure and technology of how you do a skylight today is completely different.”

It shouldn’t be a long-term construction project, but it’ll be a tricky one because the stained glass and artwork needs to be protected.

“You talk about removing a skylight like this, and you’ve got some very delicate surfaces under there,” O’Connell said, pointing to the stained glass.

Baiamonte said it’s feasible to wrap up work by the end of the year. “We don’t want to be tearing this thing apart when the snow is flying. In a perfect world, we’d have it done by fall.”

O’Connell wants something done before the Legislature gathers at the start of 2017. “It’s something we’ve done and can show them that’s an obvious improvement,” he said.

Lots of capitols were built in the early 1900s and skylights were a common feature. “In some ways they had better taste than we do now,” O’Connell joked.

The skylight above the House chamber is in about the same shape as the one to be replaced.

“If we were going to do a second one, the next one would be over the House chambers,” Baiamonte said. The superstructure there is 10 years newer -- built in 1911 -- but over more than a century, a decade's worth of difference doesn’t mean too much.

Even though it sits over the room with the most expensive piece of artwork in the Capitol, the massive C.M. Russell painting “Lewis and Clark Meeting the Flathead Indians,” this skylight isn’t a priority because the art isn’t at risk from water damage.

“In the House, the damage would be more typical to stenciling or corbels or anything, where the skylight is there’s no risk to damage of art on canvas,” O’Connell said.

Crews did some major plaster repairs in that space earlier this year, Baiamonte said. Beads made of plaster were water-damaged and drooping like a loose pearl necklace.

“The area in jeopardy is right here,” O’Connell said, pointing to areas near the gallery seating. “The beads basically detected and was loose here and curled and hung down. Again, that’s from water.”

Holly Michels can be reached at


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