Tom Eblen: New murals cap state Capitol restoration work

FRANKFORT — A century ago in June, Kentucky's magnificent Capitol building was finished. Well, not exactly finished.

It's still not finished, but it's getting there.

Before festivities scheduled for June 4 and 5, murals will be installed high in the Capitol rotunda, on four pendentives, the corner spaces just below the dome.

Murals have always been planned there, but the artist originally consulted for the work, Frank Millet, went down with the Titanic in 1912. The project didn't get going again until last year.

That's when Marion and Terry Forcht of Corbin donated $225,000 to create and install the murals. They own Forcht Bank and Forcht Group of Kentucky in Corbin and Lexington, which has 95 different companies with more than 2,100 employees.

"We're very much looking forward to seeing (the murals) in place," said Marion Forcht, a member of the state Historic Properties Advisory Commission.

After hearing at commission meetings that murals were intended for the pendentives, she talked with her husband, and they decided to donate them.

"Obviously, at this time in our economy, the state couldn't spend money on something like this," she said. "It's just something we wanted to do. We've been very blessed in our lives, and we thought this would be a nice thing that people could enjoy forever."

The murals, which are still being designed, will be allegorical representations of agriculture, industry, civilization and integrity. They will be created and installed by Evergreene Architectural Arts of New York.

The Forchts' gift to the Kentucky Executive Mansions Foundation, a non-profit organization that helps preserve and maintain state-owned historic properties, is the largest ever for the Capitol.

The murals will highlight a $460,000 state-financed restoration of the dome and rotunda. That money was appropriated in 2006, before the recession put a squeeze on the state budget, said David Buchta, the state curator.

"It will give people a chance to see what can be done with the rest of the building eventually, as resources allow," he said.

A contractor had to brace and pad the rotunda's marble floors to erect 175 feet of scaffolding, weighing 115,000 pounds, so workers could clean the marble walls and paint the corners and dome for the first time in about 40 years. The work was completed a little more than a week ago.

While they were at it, workers replaced the dome's original incandescent light fixtures with energy-efficient LED lighting, the color of which can be changed for special events.

It's hard to tell how much electricity the new LEDs will save, though, because much of the dome's lighting hasn't worked in decades, Buchta said. Bulbs in the lower dome have been replaced with compact fluorescents while he searches for LED lights that will work there.

Kentucky's Capitol is a legacy from the turn of the last century, when state government was briefly flush with cash, thanks to $1 million in federal payments for Civil War reparations and Spanish-American War reimbursements.

The state already had a beautiful Capitol — a Greek Revival gem designed in 1827 by Lexington architect Gideon Shryock. But it became too small for a growing state, and there was no room to expand. So, in 1905, the General Assembly voted to buy 30 acres across the Kentucky River and start over.

Ohio architect Frank Andrews' design for the Capitol borrowed heavily from imperial France. The dome was copied from the Hotel des Invalides in Paris, where Napoleon is buried. The State Reception Room, like the governor's mansion next door, was modeled on the palaces at Versailles. Staircases evoke the Grand Opera House in Paris.

The building is covered in Indiana limestone and filled with columns, porticos and hallways of Vermont granite, and marble from Georgia, Tennessee and Italy.

The Capitol was renovated 1955 and 1996. To mark its centennial, Buchta is publishing a book of old photographs of the Capitol, with all profits going to the foundation.

The new murals will join two famous ones in the "lunettes," half-circle spaces over the entrances to the House and Senate chambers.

One mural depicts Daniel Boone and his companions viewing the Bluegrass for the first time from Powell County's Pilot Knob; the other shows Boone and Transylvania Company officials negotiating to buy Kentucky land from the Cherokee.

Two more lunette spaces, above the governor's office and the elegant State Reception Room, remain blank.

Eventually, Buchta hopes, other generous Kentuckians will step forward to pay for murals there. If you're interested, give him a call. No need to wait a century.