Architect, photographer make visual record of NC State Capitol building

krupp@newsobserver.comJuly 29, 2013 

  • N.C. State Capitol

    The State Capitol was completed in 1840 on the site of the first capitol building in Raleigh, which burned in 1831. At $532,682, the Capitol cost more than three times the yearly general income of the state at the time it was completed.

    The Capitol housed all of North Carolina state government until 1888, when the Supreme Court and State Library moved into a separate building. The General Assembly moved into the State Legislative Building two blocks north on Jones Street in 1963.

    Today, the governor and lieutenant governor and their immediate staffs occupy offices on the first floor of the Capitol. The building is open to the public Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with guided tours offered on Saturdays at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.

    Source: State of North Carolina

— Nearly 180,000 visitors tour the historic State Capitol each year and admire the soaring rotunda and the domed legislative chambers that served the state for more than a century. And soon, 173 years after the Capitol was built, the state will finally have an official record of what this symbol of North Carolina politics looks like.

The State Capitol Recordation Project, due to wrap up in August, is the first effort to compile complete and accurate photos and drawings of the ornamental and structural details of the historic building. Until now, if the Capitol were damaged by wind, water or fire, there would be no way to accurately restore its original details.

“Although there are blueprints of the building,” said Deanna Mitchell, State Capitol site administrator, “we don’t have any detailed drawings of the building, or measured drawings of the fireplaces or the windows.”

Historic buildings of the Capitol’s stature typically keep drawings on record with the Historic American Buildings Survey at the Library of Congress. But the state has never had such drawings, because of a conflict with the architect when the Capitol was completed in 1840.

“The final architect who worked on this building had beautiful detailed drawings,” said Mitchell. “But the state of North Carolina never finished paying him for this building because it cost more than they projected. So he took his drawings with him.”

This time, the state is not footing the bill. The recordation project is funded entirely through donations raised by the State Capitol Foundation, a private group that promotes the Capitol and helps with its upkeep. The foundation set a cap of $75,000 for the project.

“There was a rising awareness throughout the whole board that this was a necessary step for protecting the State Capitol as we know it today,” said Gerald Traub, the foundation’s vice president.

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The foundation hired architect Joseph K. Oppermann of Winston-Salem, who teamed up with photographer Peter Aalestad of Staunton, Va., to begin creating a visual record of the Capitol starting last October.

The State Capitol was built in the Greek Revival style, popular in America during first half of the 19th century when Americans wanted to mimic Greek architecture as a tribute to Greek democracy. The style includes temple-fronted facades, symmetrical rectangular shapes and ornamental plasterwork.

“This is a magnificent building,” Oppermann said. “All the design is integrated, so well thought out, so well proportioned. ... It is a temple of democracy and was meant to inspire, and it does.”

Oppermann and Aalestad photograph each wall, ceiling, floorboard and other major elements in each room, as well as sketch the more ornamental features like windowsills and fireplaces. To enhance this visual record, they’re using a method called photogrammetry to record as much information about the building as possible.

Photogrammetry is a process of surveying or map-making by taking photographs of the same structure from several different directions and recording the structure in different media. Using specialty cameras and computer software, three-dimensional structures and buildings can be accurately measured and transferred to two-dimensional images.

The two-dimensional image may be a photograph, a line drawing or a drawing superimposed on a photograph. The resulting image is corrected for perspective, curves and lighting, creating accurate drawings of curved surfaces and sculptures that can be difficult to measure.

“This approach is state of the art,” said Oppermann. “We can capture so much more with an equal amount of money, and it is automatically scaled.”

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Oppermann and Aalestad expect to finish their field work this week. Last week, they worked in the attic, recording the beams and joists of the complex truss systems that hold up the domed ceiling of the House chamber.

They crawled amid the 19th-century wood and the more recent fire sprinkler pipes, electric wires and air conditioning ducts sheathed in silver insulation. Soda cans, leftover screws and other detritus indicated where workers had been.

“There are 15 cigarettes down here, between the ribs,” Oppermann said at one point, looking down on the top of the dome. “What were they thinking?”

The recordation process is only the first part of a four-phase preservation project planned by the State Capitol Foundation, said Traub.

Phase two involves preparing a history of the building and how the structure has been modified over time. Phase three analyzes the heating and air conditioning systems of the building, the roof and other mechanical systems. Phase four is preparing a final master plan that makes timed projections for necessary repairs decades into the future.

“Rather than being a reactionary board, we want to be in a position to anticipate the needs of the building,” said Traub. “The master plan is supposed to help the state and foundation make sure funds are available for repairs.”

The foundation hopes to spend no more than one year per phase, but will not begin a phase until enough money has been raised to cover it, said Traub.

Rupp: 919-829-8955

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