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Legislative Council seeks new life for old space

Arizona Capitol Building (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Arizona Capitol Building (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

In the empty space that once housed hundreds of thousands of books, periodicals and legal documents, Michael Braun sees an opportunity to finally bring Arizona’s hodgepodge Capitol complex on par with other states’ grand buildings.

Braun, executive director of Legislative Council, is spearheading efforts to renovate the old state library on the third floor of the 1938 annex to the state Capitol building. He’s expected to meet next week with architects to discuss what it would take to transform the former library into usable space, potentially including a reception area for visiting dignitaries and neutral meeting ground for legislative and executive leaders.

That kind of space is common in other states, which house multiple branches of government in marble monoliths. But in Arizona, dignitaries who visit the House of Representatives can only be taken to the floor or a basement conference room with mismatched chairs, Braun said. And when legislative leaders want to meet with the governor, they usually have to go to his office.

Representatives from the National Conference of State Legislatures and other organizations frequently comment on the Arizona Capitol’s austerity, Braun said.

“When people from NCSL come here, they say ‘It’s nice but it’s nothing like’ and then they name any other state.”

The original 1901 copper-domed Capitol building connects to a series of later additions: an annex built in 1919, one added in 1938, and the Executive Tower completed in 1974. The Legislative Council, a 14-member committee made up of the speaker of the House, the president of the Senate and six other members from each chamber, controls the entire building, minus the Executive Tower.

“Under the state statute, everything in this building until you get to the brass doors is the domain of Legislative Council,” Braun said. “When people say the House, the Senate or the Legislative Council want to take over the space, it’s already their space.”

The Secretary of State’s Office, meanwhile, has jurisdiction over most of the building’s contents. It maintains the Capitol Museum in the original building.

For years, the third floor had been the home of the state’s library, under the auspices of the secretary of state. But in summer 2017, then-Secretary of State Michele Reagan moved the library to the Polly Rosenbaum building a few blocks away because of ongoing conversations about how the archives should be in a location that complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, said C. Murphy Hebert, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s Office.

Because the Capitol annexes were built decades ago, they don’t meet today’s standards for accessibility, said Don Ryden, an architect now working with Braun.

Doors are too narrow and bathrooms too small to accommodate people with wheelchairs. A mezzanine overlooking the old reading room is reachable only by a narrow set of stairs. And the upper stories don’t have easy ways to exit in case of fire.

“The building is healthy,” Ryden said. “It’s sound and sturdy. It’s not so much a structural thing as it is a safety thing.”

Ryden and another architect, Akram Rosheidat, previously worked with former Phoenix Mayor John Driggs, a historic preservation aficionado. Driggs, who died in 2014 at the age of 87, led a committee in the mid-2000s that wanted to remodel the old Capitol and connect it to the House and Senate with elevated, enclosed walkways.

Those efforts resulted in a refurbished elevator in the Capitol Museum, but the other plans languished during the Great Recession. They didn’t account for moving the library, so Ryden and Rashiedat have been refreshing their decade-old plans with a new vision for the library.  

“It’s all kind of fuzzy right now, but it fits exactly into the vision Mayor Driggs had,” Ryden said. “It’s still as viable today as it was then, and they figured we would be the right guys to hit the ground running.”

The two architects have prepared a preliminary scope of work, Ryden said, and they’ll meet with Braun next week. It’s then up to Braun to review those early plans and talk to Senate President Karen Fann and House Speaker Rusty Bowers, the current heads of the Legislative Council.

House and Senate leaders over the past 25 years have had various ideas for how best to use the annex space, Braun said.

“You’re constrained within the four walls and the roof of the House and Senate building and not much likelihood of expanding them,” Braun said. “I see it as an opportunity to reclaim space on a block where space is at a premium.”

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