For the last four years, the Wyoming legislature has been meeting at a remodeled Kmart as the state capitol complex has undergone extensive renovations. While new state office space is being constructed, the big news surrounds the restoration that has taken place inside the capitol building.
Wearing hard hats, yellow vests and plastic bags over our shoes we walk through a renovated underground space that leads to the capitol building. The area is dark and covered with sawdust, but Architectural Project Manager Suzanne Norton points out the highlights.
"Six meeting rooms, three on each side the largest seats 75. On this side we have the media center, the visitor's center and a learning center and on this side we have more meeting rooms," she said.
If you've ever been to a legislative session and had to stand outside due to overcrowding, those days are likely over. The rooms will also be high tech. There will be audio-sound systems with the availability to stream video of the meetings. Lobbyists will also have a space; they'll be placed the furthest away from the capitol building.
Former State Senator Jayne Mockler of Cheyenne joins us on the tour. It was Mockler who was fed up with the condition of the capitol almost 20 years ago and urged lawmakers to fix it.
"We reached a point where everyday something broke," she said.
Former Appropriations Committee Co-Chairman Phil Nicholas agreed it was a serious problem.
"We were having water breaks that were causing substantial damage throughout the building, we were having pipe failures, electrical failures, fires those sorts of things, all of great concern. And the beginning of the exercise is the capitol needs to be renovated, so we began the process of saving money," said Nicholas.
The original idea was to renovate the capitol, but because of health problems Nicholas starting traveling to other states and decided to look in on restored capitols during his visits. He was impressed with what they looked like. He convinced lawmakers to restore the facility as opposed to remodeling and the state embarked on a $300 million endeavor. There have been many critics who said the state couldn't afford the project, but supporters say they had to fix it anyway, so why not do it right? Mockler said the idea is to take the capitol back to the early days of statehood.
"Because it was built in three sections, in 1888, 1890 and then 1917 and so I think for the core of the building they are trying to make it look a lot like they did in the original, but for the colors and the life safety and all that they really wanted to bring it back to 1917. So, when you get in the house and Senate chambers that's the colors they brought it back to and the design," said Mockler.
So instead of pastel colors in the House and Senate and lots of white walls inside the building, they were able to take it back to original colors. Project Manager Norton said they spent a lot of time peeling off layers to get it right.
"So, there's some very talented people working on this project and somehow they were able to take away layers of paint and show us what was there. They were able to scientifically determine what the colors were, what the decorations were and they've recreated it," said Norton.
The House has been restored to its original green, olive and gold look. It also now has windows behind the speaker's chair that can be opened in the afternoon. The Senate has a carpet of maroon and gold with shades brown, gold and green on the walls.
Nicholas said the entire capitol has a different look.
"Huge committee rooms on the main floor of the capitol which expose some of the most beautiful attributes of the capitol, we compromised to make sure each elected official has a ceremonial office around the rotunda, the governor's office is and should be the big winner. His space is going to befantastic," said Nicholas.
The coolest room is the old Supreme Court room which will be used as a committee room. That's where the original constitution was signed.
"That's a beautiful room and to me it's sort of like going to Washington to see the capitol. You expect to see the original history and you see the history of the state and the richness of the state," added Nicholas.
But at the same time it features a lot of modern technology and even a learning center for students.
Mockler said they have made the capitol a museum.
"I think it's just incredible. I think people will be pleased. You know it was a lot of money but it's also the crown jewel of the state of Wyoming. So, I think it was definitely worth it. I think the colors will surprise people. I think finding the craftsmen who could pull off some of this work, I think it will surprise people how hard it was but then still what an amazing job they've done," said Mockler.
Nicholas added that it might even improve legislating.
"When you look up at the Tiffany glass, when you look at the paintings, if you're a legislator it makes a difference it sets the tone, it sets the mood. When people are there they understand this is serious business. At the same time, I hope when people are there they feel like they are in a special place."
Lawmakers plan a soft opening July 10 which is Wyoming statehood day.