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Livingston: Renovating The Statehouse

10/26/09 7:55AM By Judy Livingston
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(HOST) There's one item of business that probably won't be on the legislative agenda this session, but commentator Judy Livingston thinks it should be.

(LIVINGSTON) A wonderful story is told about former U.S. House Speaker Sam Rayburn as he listened to an enthused new freshman blurt, "....And then we'll confound the Republicans with this, and then thwart them with that, and trap them with whatever...!" Sam apparently listened patiently, then, leaned back in his chair and said, in his wonderful Texas drawl, "Son, it isn't the Republicans who are the enemy, it's the Senate!"

I learned this the hard way when I served on a legislative committee to expand and upgrade the Statehouse. House members had outgrown our 14 committee rooms in what had been the "new wing" (built in 1897). On a routine day, possibly 30 people cram into a space designed for half that number. In the case of fire, several must get up, fold their chairs and allow those in the room to get out through the one door into an equally crowded hallway. All this activity - maybe 350 people strong - is stacked on 3 upper floors with one staircase and one fire escape. The Fire Marshall and air quality experts have warned legislators repeatedly that no state building should be allowed to function under these circumstances!

Vermont's statehouse is unique. The current structure replaced the original building when it burned in 1857. It's the oldest statehouse still in use as intended.  Most states have decamped to modern quarters built next to the original, abandoning the historic building to State events, tourists and school groups. In Montpelier, we do it all under the same golden dome.

Our architectural group invited several firms to compete with ideas. We stipulated that the integrity of the period be respected and the view from the street preserved. Finegold Alexander, a Boston group, came up with the best plan - carving the additional space out of the abutting mountain. This design would have expanded our packed cafeteria, added sunny openings to the outdoor hiking paths and provided large House committee rooms with accommodations for member's belongings. (Currently, we have one file drawer each and cartons under our feet.) Well, the upshot was, the House said "let's go!" but the Senate said "no go".

I am a committed preservationist, having directed the 25-year long restoration of Hildene in Manchester. To do what is right by the most important historic building in the state of Vermont should be at the top of our list. Understanding that the Senate's objection was one of funding, I offered to raise the money privately. The answer was still "NO". Meanwhile, the Senate has acquired expensive new furniture and an extra committee room. Understand that the Senate occupies the historic section of the statehouse, beautifully and elegantly restored. But importantly, in case of disaster they can save their senatorial skins, by stepping out of their first floor windows.

As Speaker Sam might have said, "The enemy has flung the gauntlet!"
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