Our history comes with a perpetual cost

The state Legislative Building in Olympia.
The state Legislative Building in Olympia. The Olympian

A grimy film on the Washington state Capitol’s stone exterior is going to be cleaned off soon.

The scrub-down, last done in 2012, is part of a larger $3.4 million project to maintain and repair the 90-year-old building, formally known as the Legislative Building.

Cleaning agents and pressure washing are planned to lift the mixture of lichen and algae that periodically blackens the stately Capitol’s dome. The dome and lower areas have leaks as well as the discoloration.

Dome cleaning has become an Olympia ritual over the decades and this time the job may extend into 2019. The slow work and high costs are testament to the high value Washingtonians place on their history.

And project costs are rising — up from about $3 million in 2012. This for a sandstone-clad building that opened to the public in 1928 and cost what was then a mind-boggling $7.38 million. But public monuments have a way of costing far more to keep up than to build.

Damage caused by a major earthquake in 2001 prompted the state to spend more than $120 million to repair and significantly modernize the Capitol’s plumbing, heating, electrical and telecommunications systems.

Very soon – possibly Sept. 19 – the public will be able to see their tax dollars at work again. That is when inspectors and cleaning crews rope up and get to work atop the steep dome. Cold or wet weather could push the second and third phases of work, targeting lower levels of the building, until next year.

The science behind cleaning historic buildings is always changing, according to Linda Kent, spokeswoman for the state Department of Enterprise Services, which oversees Capitol Campus buildings. Kent said DES relies on a team of technical advisers to oversee the work, suggest new methods and identify any structural repairs that are needed.

It’s some solace to know that DES is learning from past clean-ups. The 2012 project failed to leave the stonework as clean for as long as in prior decades, according Kent. DES had used a gentler approach that avoided harsh chemicals suspected of causing damage to stone surfaces in the past.

But the risk of such ballooning repair costs is something state government needs to keep more sharply in mind when undertaking big construction projects or make land-use decisions that defy nature or interfere with it.

A good example of the latter is at man-made Capitol Lake, created in the 1950s with a dam where the Deschutes River flows into Puget Sound. But the lake was closed to swimming a couple of decades ago for health reasons, and it has been filling up with silt that limits its usefulness to control flooding.

It also has an infestation of invasive snails and, as the lake gets shallower, vegetation blooms on the surface.

Costs to repair the lake water quality could run into the tens of millions of dollars, depending whether the water is allowed to revert to a natural estuary or if very costly dredging is attempted.

A natural estuary would be friendlier to fish than dredging the lake, which requires permits that could be very difficult to obtain. But lake backers think it is an aesthetic complement to the Capitol Campus design crafted more than a century ago.

An environmental impact study is under way to gauge which options makes sense. The study is also examining hybrid designs — which could incorporate elements of an estuary and smaller lake.

Any approach will cost a lot – potentially tens of millions of dollars if a new dam or bridge are built along Fifth Avenue. But these costs are as much a legacy of our past as the revered Capitol — or even the treaties signed in the 1850s by the federal government and tribes.

One such treaty guarantees the Squaxin Island Tribe’s members a right to catch half of the salmon runs that migrate through the lake zone both to and from spawning areas.

We need to think well into the future and remember the state’s costly experience cleaning and fixing the Capitol.

The Capitol is a wonderful public heirloom and sometimes is called “The People’s House,” and the Capitol Campus is a park filled with such majestic buildings.

But the public is a fickle lot and may have other priorities in the future. We saw in recent days that poor maintenance and delays in fire-control upgrades were implicated in the horrific fire that destroyed 200 years of artifacts in Brazil’s historic national museum. Ultimately there is a limit to what the public will pay.

This requires us to take honest stock of what we really need and can afford to fix on our Capitol Campus. This also goes for the lake environs.