When the 191st General Court is sworn in on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019, senators will take their oath in a newly restored chamber that attempts to maintain the historic character of the space while incorporating new technology and making it more accessible.
Once completed, the chamber will feature a new handicap-accessible rostrum, accessible desks for senators, a new ventilation system, all new lighting, improved acoustics, better sight lines from the public galleries and historically-accurate finishes, the architect working on the project said Thursday.
“This is clearly an aging facility, as I said; it is over 200 years old and it’s undergone many, many renovations over the years,” Christos Coios of CBT Architects told reporters during a walk-through of the chamber. “It suffers from very poor environmental systems, it does not have an efficient heating, ventilating and air conditioning system … it has very poor temperature control, it’s either too hot or too cold, and the material conditions are deteriorated.”
The Senate chamber sits in the part of the building designed by Charles Bulfinch and completed in 1798. Most of the chamber – which originally held the House of Representatives until that branch moved to its larger quarters down the hall in 1898 – has been changed from the original design, but its sunburst ceiling remains the same.
The chamber is expected to retain many of its features after the restoration – including the horseshoe shape of the senators’ desks and general configuration of the room – and much of the work will take place behind the walls of the chamber.
In the final minutes of the Senate’s final session in its chamber before making way for the renovations last month, a loud bang that seemed to come from above echoed throughout the chamber and a staffer who looked up upon hearing the bang was struck in the eye with small debris. He was not seriously injured.
Lawmakers authorized $20 million in 2014 to renovate the Senate chamber and facilities, after Senate officials highlighted structural issues including falling ceiling pieces, cracking in major cornices, columns leaning in and away from the original structure, and deterioration of lower decorative walls.
The total project cost is estimated at $22.6 million and Colantonio of Holliston was awarded a $14.1 million contract for the construction work, according to the Senate president’s office.
Work crews will take on the project as lawmakers and Gov. Charlie Baker struggle with state budget problems stemming from low growth in tax revenues and major increases in health care spending. Democrats in the Legislature have joined activists in pressing for a $2 billion tax package on high earners.
The Senate will hold its sessions in the just-renovated Gardner Auditorium as work is underway in the chamber, and the project is projected to be completed by January 2019.
The large chandelier that hangs from the chamber’s domed ceiling will be removed, restored and re-lamped using LED lights and bulbs pointed up into the dome so the light bounces off the dome, mimicking the natural lighting of the chamber’s original design, he said.
And the lower decorative walls that line the chamber – which are made up of about 1,500 individual wood blocks – will be dismantled, individually numbered, stripped of the 20 to 25 coats of paint they have accumulated over the years, repainted and replaced to their exact locations.
The goal of the project, Coios and Rosenberg said in a statement, is to make the Senate chamber safer and more comfortable, and add modern technology where possible without sacrificing the historic character of the space.