Senate to Unveil Refurbished Chamber Wednesday
By Katie Lannan
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
BOSTON -- When the gavel banged on Jan. 2 to officially kick off the 2018-2019 Senate session, architect Christos Coios cringed.
“It was a good, almighty whack,” he said Monday. “I was glad it didn’t crack.”
With the $22.6 million restoration that closed the Massachusetts Senate chamber for a year and a half now complete, Coios led reporters on a tour of the space, detailing the efforts to preserve historic elements and add modern touches -- a new, reinforced gavel pad, for one thing, plus USB charging ports at senators’ seats and a sprinkler system Coios described as “very discreetly routed.”
Senate President Karen Spilka characterized the renovation, set to be celebrated Wednesday afternoon, as a “labor of love” intended to more closely replicate the chamber’s appearance in the late 1800s.
“Just as importantly, what is so wonderful is we have made the chamber a much more inclusive, welcoming, more diverse place, more in line with what the Senate is like and what the State House is like and what our state and country should be,” Spilka said.
The chamber is now fully accessible and compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Spilka said. She said a senator in a wheelchair would now be able to use any of the 40 seats, while previously only one spot at the horseshoe-shaped desks could accomodate a wheelchair.
The rostrum is newly wheelchair-accessible as well, with more space and power doors that lead to a chairlift.
The south wall now bears a quote from abolitionist Frederick Douglass -- “Truth, Justice, Liberty, and Humanity Will Ultimately Prevail. A bust and photos of Douglass, from the Museum of African American History, will soon be on display in the chamber.
Spilka said she believes it will be the first bust of a person of color in the State House.
“We were pleased when Senate President Spilka asked if we would participate in this opening because one, we felt that it gave some great exposure to what we do,” Leon Wilson, the museum’s chief advancement officer, said. “But we also wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to honor Frederick Douglass and the emancipation work that he’s done, his relationship with the people that many of you know as household names. Abraham Lincoln, for instance, was not only president but a friend of his.”
The Senate and the museum plan an event in the chamber Wednesday at 1 p.m. to honor Douglass and celebrate the reopening of the chamber.
Before returning to the chamber on the first day of this legislative session, Jan. 2, the Senate had been meeting in Gardner Auditorium, in the basement of the State House, since late May of 2017.
Originally the meeting place for the House of Representatives, the chamber is in the part of the State House designed by Charles Bulfinch and completed in 1798. It sits on the third floor underneath the building’s landmark golden dome.
The concave areas between the ribs of the dome now contain an acoustic absorbing material that Coios, of CBT Architects, said will help quiet the room down and address the previous “excessive reverberation time and a lack of clarity of speech.” Acoustic panels also line the back walls of the public galleries on the fourth floor.
The floors of the galleries were restructured to make them more regular, Coios said, and the rows of seating were made “more user friendly.”
Coios described a painstaking process to keep the historical nature of the chamber intact. The roughly 150-year-old chandelier that hangs below the dome took a day and a half to dissemble so it could be restored, he said. Its new LED bulbs are set at a 12 degree angle so their light will bounce off the dome and mimic the room’s original natural lighting.
The wooden panels that line the lower walls of the chamber had more than 1,500 pieces that were individually removed and tagged so that they could be returned to their original location after more than 20 layers of paint were removed using a steam-stripping process and a heat gun.
Coios said the project, “on the surface, may appear as just a cosmetic restoration but really there was a lot of intervention done here, a lot of reconstruction.”