While lawmakers may have returned to their districts to campaign for re-election, work continues on Beacon Hill.
No, not on legislation — but on the restoration of the historic Senate Chamber, located directly below the famed golden dome.
Dozens of skilled craftsmen are painstakingly working out of sight, behind construction walls that seal off the chamber from the rest of the State House. The sounds of saws, hammers and all sorts construction equipment echo through the marble halls of the historic building.
Planning for the $23 million project has been underway for a decade.
“The project focus is to bring the Senate Chamber back to the configuration and the finishes and the colors that it was in 1898, when it first became the Senate — having been the House of Representatives before that,” project architect Chris Coios said during a recent tour of the building.
Coios said the renovation team had to learn the history of the State House and Senate Chamber to guide their restoration decisions. The project is much more than a cosmetic renovation of the chamber.
Plaster in the ceiling has been replaced, acoustics are being enhanced, and old wooden ventilation grills have been replaced with new grills made out of aluminum. Lighting and loudspeakers will be hidden behind the grills. Walls have been stripped down to their original brick, and Coios says more than 1,500 blocks that panel the chamber will be restored.
“They had about 20 layers of paint on them over the years,” Coios said. “All of the blocks have been removed and put into steam chambers and stripped of all the paint layers.”
The blocks are numbered and will be put back in the same location after restoration.
The chamber is also being brought into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Coios says behind the rostrum, a light shaft that once allowed daylight to filter down to a hall on the building’s second floor has been converted into an area connected to the chamber by a new passageway.
“Behind that passageway, there’s going to be a small corridor that will give you access to the new work room,” Coios said. “It will also give you access to a new wheelchair lift that will raise you up to the level of the rostrum, so the rostrum will now be accessible, which it wasn’t before.”
Harriette Chandler, who served recently as Senate president, got a chance to view the progress, and said she likes what she sees.
“We’ve retained all of the beauty that is the history of this wonderful chamber, but we’ve made it 21st century,” Chandler said. “We have left a statement here that this is for the long run, and Massachusetts is sort of ahead of where we’ve been.”
Construction on the Senate Chamber will continue through the summer and fall. The Senate will continue to hold informal sessions in their temporary quarters in Gardner Auditorium.
Managers say the project is on budget and on time, and will be completed by the first Wednesday in January, when the 191st session of the Legislature convenes.