It’s to be expected that a public building finished in 1840 would show some wear, but when the building is the State Capitol – which attracts about 120,000 visitors a year – peeling paint and dingy granite detracts from its museum-like aura.
Some of those defects will be repaired because of Lou Mitchell, a Raleigh resident who has nearly a lifelong attachment to the Capitol. She convinced key legislators to direct $923,000 from the state’s repair and renovation fund toward improvements.
“I just thought it would be a shame to let it fall into disrepair,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell is a member of The North Carolina State Capitol Foundation, a charity that supports keeping the building in 1840s form.
Mitchell said the foundation has focused on a different project to document the building’s measurements. So she struck out on her own to get restoration money. She took Reps. Gary Pendleton of Raleigh and Nelson Dollar of Cary, the chief budget writer in the House, on a winter tour of the building’s flaws. Paint flaking from the doors and a wall near one of the entrances made problems easy to spot.
Pendleton, a Raleigh Republican, has known Mitchell for years. She is married to Burley Mitchell, a former state Supreme Court chief justice.
“I was shocked,” Pendleton said. “I’m pretty much a history nut. I could not believe that we let a building like that get in that condition, especially with the governor in there.”
The governor has an office in the Capitol, which also houses his public information staff. The General Assembly met there from 1840 until the State Legislative Building to the north was finished in 1963.
The House reserved the restoration money, which is under the Department of Administration’s control, in its version of the budget. The funds didn’t make it in to the Senate’s budget proposal. Pendleton said he spoke regularly with chief Senate budget writer Harry Brown about putting the money in the final budget compromise.
Mitchell’s effort this year to get money for improvements wasn’t her first. She asked former Sens. Marc Basnight and Linda Garrou and former House Speaker Joe Hackney for money to replace the torn and faded carpet in the old House and Senate chambers on the second floor.
In the early 1980s, she helped convince the Raleigh Woman’s Club to commit money to the restoration of monuments on the Capitol grounds.
“Lou is a very assertive person,” Pendleton said.
Mitchell has decades of good memories associated with the Capitol.
Before she was old enough to go to school, she visited her father’s downtown business, and they walked together to the Capitol grounds.
“I’ve always loved that building,” she said. “It’s just iconic to me.”
On a walk through the building Tuesday morning, Mitchell pointed to all the problems she’d like fixed: the grime out of the fireplaces, UV filters on the windows to keep patches of the new carpet from fading further, new paint, and clean granite inside and out.
Mitchell has tried to clean the darkest spots on the interior walls herself, but they did not wipe away.
A separate project, restoring the windows, is ongoing.
The building is “probably the “finest example of public Greek Revival architecture in the United States,” said Keith A. Hardison, head of the division of state historic sites in the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
Plaster, paint, UV filters and a deep cleaning will probably be top priorities, he said.
The Natural and Cultural Resources and Administration departments will get together to decide how to use the money, Hardison said.
“This comes as a huge shot in the arm for things that we wanted to do and know need to be done,” he said.