OKLAHOMA CITY — Doug Kellogg bends down and picks up a little gray pebble from one of the 24 steps leading up to the main entrance of the Oklahoma Capitol building. Then he picks up another, then another, until his palm is full of the small, molar-like stones.
The stones are Indiana limestone. Kellogg, the Capitol building superintendent, knows this because the stones were once part of the building’s limestone facade. That facade, with its towering Corinthian columns and elegant triangular tympanum, has deteriorated rapidly over the last few years, shedding small pieces onto the steps below.
Inside and out, the Capitol building is urgently in need of repair, but the makeover remains on hold because the legislature is stuck at an impasse. In a climate that makes endorsing any kind of increase in debt politically risky, legislators haven’t been able to find an acceptable source of funding for repairs, even as the Capitol literally crumbles around them.
“It’s politics,” said Mark Sauchuk, director of the Office of Facilities Management. “If you’re over in Edmond and there’s some project you’re looking at over there and then it doesn’t get done, but the Capitol does get done, how are you going to feel about your representative? Like he didn’t fight hard enough for you.”
The Capitol’s main entrance was shut down in late 2011, when a 12-ounce arrowhead-shaped chunk of rock fell off the facade. A length of yellow plastic fencing, weighed down with sandbags, was erected along the bottom of the staircase.
Over a year later, that yellow plastic fencing is still there and the Capitol is still shedding its skin in pebble-sized pieces.
The crumbling facade is not the only problem the Capitol faces, Kellogg said. The building’s plumbing is leaky, with pipes in some areas corroded halfway out of existence. The electrical system’s integrity is threatened by poorly insulated and ungrounded wires. When something goes wrong, repairs are often complicated by the presence of asbestos.
Kellogg said the pipes and wires that are now failing have lasted longer than expected. Most of the pipes were installed when the building was constructed from 1914-1917.
The plumbing was intended to function for around 50 to 60 years, Kellogg said, holding up a piece of cast-iron pipe that outlasted the Soviet Union. It’s only now that they’re starting to fall apart.
Problems with the electrical system run along similar lines. Many of the wires are grounded in ways that are now non-standard. Some are not grounded at all. Some are insulated with cloth that is so brittle, it threatens to disintegrate if touched.
“This building wasn’t shoddily built,” Kellogg said. “The Capitol was state-of-the-art when it was built. It had electricity in 1915. There were a lot of country farms back then that wouldn’t see electricity for a while yet. ... It’s just that these things have a life expectancy.”
Though the Capitol has never undergone a complete renovation, 96 years of spot repairs and modifications have left it with many little idiosyncrasies that make maintenance problematic.
Kellogg said an assistant to the Senate president pro tempore reported water dripping from their office ceiling. Kellogg found the water was leaking from a pipe that extended across three floors with no outlets.
In another part of the Capitol, a urinal prone to overflowing threatens to leak down onto the high-voltage electrical switching panels in the room below. If the switching panels were shorted out, Kellogg said it could deprive the entire building of power. However, replacing the urinal’s World-War-I-era piping would be too costly under current contraints. So the urinal stays, blocked off with yellow “caution” tape.
The disintegration of the limestone facade, however, is not just the result of age. Many current problems can be traced back to a refurbishment performed in the mid-1970s, Kellogg said.
Stones in structures like the Oklahoma Capitol absorb moisture and weep it back out into the grouting. Because of this, the grout must be softer than the stones it holds in place. While the Capitol’s base is made out of hard, pink-gray Tishomingo granite, its limestone facade is soft and requires a very soft grout, he said.
During the mid-1970s, the entire facade was regrouted with a much harder compound for durability. As a result, when the stones get wet, they stay impregnated with water. When the water in the stones freezes, the stones begin to weaken.
“The American way is, if a little’s good, a lot’s better,” Kellogg said. “... Well, that isn’t always the case. In this case, we’ve proven that the hard way.”
Renovators also cleaned parts of the edifice by sandblasting, further increasing their absorbency, he said.
Water is also seeping into the Capitol’s interior. On the inner surface of the facade, just above the main entrance, long, white stains have been left by effervescent minerals leached out of the mortar. Once those minerals are gone, the mortar is essentially just sand.
“The water should never have come this far,” Kellogg said. “It’s like you’re wearing a rain jacket. Well, now your shirt’s getting wet.”
The only part of the facade that isn’t rapidly deteriorating is the dome, installed in 2002.
One of the pillars inside the facade also appears to be shifting, presumably due to water damage. However, there’s no way to know how serious the problem is or how quickly it needs to be fixed without conducting a study. For that, much more money is needed.
In 2012, a proposed $200 million bond issue that would have funded Capitol repairs was defeated 77-15 in the House. Legislators cited public anxiety over growing government debt as the reason for rejecting it. At the time, the Capitol Preservation Commission estimated that the cost of repairs would reach $241 million.
“All I heard all last session was, ‘It’s going good. The bond money’s looking good,’” Sauchuk said. “Then that thing crashed so bad.”
This year, prospects for a large bond issue to fund repairs — start to finish — look even bleaker. Relatively moderate Republicans who are open to a bond issue are gridlocked against fiscal conservatives who treat any proposal to increase public debt with profound suspicion. Democratic legislators will not cooperate in supporting a bond issue until Republicans compromise on tax cuts, said Sean Burrage, D-Claremore, the Senate minority leader.
Rather than backing a bond issue, Gov. Mary Fallin has called for the appropriation of $10 million out of current state revenue to start repairs.
The governor intends for about $2 million to be spent on a study to devise a budget and a timeline for repairs, Fallin spokesman Alex Weintz said. The remaining $8 million would go toward repairing the facade.
“We are under no illusions that $10 million is going to fix this Capitol,” Weintz said. “It’s going to be more than $100 million.”
Fallin has not ruled out paying for additional repairs out of the state’s $577.5 million rainy day fund, Weintz said. The rainy day fund is intended for use in exceptional circumstances.
Over the years, the Office of Facilities Management has been able to perform numerous small improvements — replacing electricity-guzzling incandescent bulbs with LEDs, installing more efficient boilers and air conditioners and reducing the water usage of urinals. Thanks to these augmentations, the Capitol has become one of the most energy-efficient government facilities in the state.
The Capitol currently receives 93 of a possible 100 points from the Energy Star rating organization.
But now, Sauchuk said, the only improvements to be made will be the big ones.
Outside of his office, Doug Kellogg keeps a small display of rust-eaten pipes and chunks of Indiana limestone. Nearby, photos of crumbling brick walls and tangled wires are tacked to a partition. Kellogg maintains this display so those who pass through his office can see the evidence of the Capitol’s needs.
“If we’re going to leave this Capitol for other generations, we have to maintain it,” he said.