MADISON, Wis. — When Sen. Fred Risser visited his father, a Wisconsin state senator, in the Capitol as a young boy, attendants operated the elevators, lawmakers had tobacco spittoons in their offices and there was not a single female senator.
Risser, who was first elected in 1956, has seen those and many more things change during his time in office. But he always feels a certain way when he walks into the Capitol, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.
“I’ve visited most of the capitols in the United States and I can’t think of a prettier, more beautiful building,” he said.
Risser, 89, is part of a bipartisan commemorative commission planning a monthslong celebration designed to reach people around the state, regardless of whether they can travel to Madison. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate President Roger Roth are co-chairing the commission.
Among the plans are an online virtual tour, a temporary museum in the building’s rotunda and a commemorative book. Gov. Scott Walker, former Gov. Tommy Thompson and others will speak at a kick-off event Jan. 31, which will include a public reception.
The festivities will move outside in the warmer months with a centennial flower garden and a special edition of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s Concerts on the Square.
Construction on the Capitol began in 1906 after a fire destroyed the previous, smaller building. Architect George B. Post, whose credits include the New York Stock Exchange building, designed the 400,000-square-foot granite building, which many thought excessive at the time.
Debate also surfaced as the building aged: One camp supported minor updates to maximize space while the other pushed for pricier fixes that would maintain the building’s original appearance. The latter, supported by Risser, prevailed. Major renovations between 1990 and 2001 restored rooms to their original appearances while adding modern amenities such as air conditioning and more electrical outlets. The project displaced the building’s occupants wing by wing for years at a time and totaled $140 million, several times the building’s original cost of $7 million.
According to the Department of Administration, 52,000 elementary school students toured the Capitol last year and saw unique details, like the starfish fossil in the marble steps, up close. An estimated 130 couples get married in the Capitol each year and many more stop by for photos.
The building has also weathered upheaval and protests. Tens of thousands of demonstrators converged in 2011 to protest Walker’s proposal, known as Act 10, that effectively ended collective bargaining rights for public employees.
Bill Babcock, executive director of the American Institute of Architects in Wisconsin, hopes the building’s birthday will pique people’s interest in its roots.
“You survey architects and what’s their favorite building? It’s always the Capitol,” Babcock said at a recent commission meeting. Babcock is organizing lectures on the building’s design and the extensive efforts conservators have taken, such as swabbing delicate murals with cotton balls and launching tiny sponges at the building’s granite exterior.
Risser, a longtime member of the board that oversees all changes to the Capitol, lives across the street from the building and admires what he considers the heart of Wisconsin through his front window.
“We were willing, over a period of a decade, to put the money in that now we probably wouldn’t,” he said, adding that the restorations were a bipartisan effort, as is the upcoming celebration. “These things don’t just happen — people make them happen.”
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