Before the governor had even cut the red ribbon with a giant pair of scissors, visitors were streaming into the Minnesota Capitol on Friday, ready to take part in a celebration more than 112 years in the making.
The three-day Minnesota Capitol Grand Opening, which continues through Sunday, marks the end of a nearly four-year, $310 million restoration project. But because the state never held an official grand opening when the Capitol made its debut in 1905, it also amounts to an unusual opportunity to celebrate Minnesota’s past, present and future.
Speaking at the ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday morning, Gov. Mark Dayton applauded state lawmakers for working together “without rancor, without partisanship” to see the project through — and expressed hope that Minnesotans would continue to see the Capitol building as their own in the years to come.
“The most beautiful Capitol in the United States, the one that most closely approximates the U.S. Capitol, stands on this hill and says again, to the people of Minnesota: ‘This is your government. This belongs to you,’ ” he said.
An estimated 50,000 to 60,000 people were expected to make the trek to St. Paul over the weekend to take part in festivities ranging from behind-the-scenes tours to live music and dance performances, historical discussions and fireworks.
On Friday, tour groups that swelled to 30 to 40 people took off every 30 minutes, with many visitors eager to get a look at parts of the Capitol that had been off-limits for years — or rarely opened to the public at all. The halls of the Capitol, largely quiet since the legislative session ended in May, echoed as both children and adults packed into the House, Senate and Supreme Court chambers and other corners of the building.
Some, like Tom and Rene Steger of Zumbrota, had visited the Capitol before, but said the renovations had transformed the place. Among the most visible updates were restorations to the paintings and artwork around the building, an expanded German-style cafeteria called the Rathskeller and a new elevator and stairway to help with emergency access. Workers also overhauled the Capitol’s aging heating and cooling systems, making the building more energy efficient.
“It’s amazing to think about all the work that went into this,” Tom Steger said.
Also restored was the gleaming, golden quadriga atop the Capitol, its four horses pulling a chariot. Visitors waited in a line that stretched down the hallway and partway down a flight of stairs for their chance to climb up a narrow spiral staircase and get a glimpse of the statue. On the roof, which had been closed through the construction project, people snapped photos of views that stretch all the way to the Minneapolis skyline.
Among the crowd was Jenny Jones, a 12-year-old from Edina touring the Capitol with her mother, Gail, and a friend. She said she was impressed with the building — and surprised to find that she and the hundreds of other people wandering the halls could come explore it on their own.
“I thought it was blocked off and only the important people could come in,” she said.
Several speakers during Friday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony praised the work of Cass Gilbert, the noted architect who designed the Capitol around the turn of the 20th century. It was the first major project for Gilbert, who went on to design the U.S. Supreme Court building, the Woolworth Building in New York City, and state capitols in Arkansas and West Virginia, among many others.
On the Capitol steps, members of the Cass Gilbert Society handed out chunks of marble pulled out of the building during the restoration — and reminded visitors that they’re on an ongoing quest to locate and catalog furniture designed by Gilbert for the building. (Much of it has apparently been located in northern Minnesota, where it was perhaps taken by state lawmakers.)
Nearby, people posed for photos with a giant, temporary statue that read: #OnlyInMN. Volunteers handed out blueberry muffins, Minnesota’s official state muffin since 1988. A music stage was transformed for different performances during the day that ranged from the Minnesota State Band to an evening Prince-themed dance party.
‘The Capitol is gorgeous’
Some visitors said they planned to be back for more events this weekend. Julie Baugnet, of St. Paul, showed up at 7:30 a.m. for yoga on the Capitol lawn and said she’d be back to do the same on Saturday and Sunday.
“I love architecture, and the Capitol is gorgeous,” she said.
Under a blue sky at Friday morning’s ribbon cutting, several speakers applauded the efforts of the 1,800 construction workers who helped complete the restoration project, along with those who worked on it more than a century ago.
And some looked toward the future, including Hope Anderson, a third-grader from Duluth who was one of three winners of a statewide student essay contest. She read from her essay, in which she praised the building’s beauty — especially the quadriga, titled “The Progress of the State” — and imagined that she might be back in the years to come.
“One thing that might change at the Capitol in the future is there might be a woman governor,” she said. “Maybe me.”
Minnesota Capitol restoration
Project began: September 2013
Project completion: January 2017 (partial), August 2017 (full)
Cost: $310 million
Highlights: Art restoration, including the golden quadriga on the roof; updated heated cooling and safety systems; new dining spaces and refurbished basement level