State planning to restore historic Capitol fence

Michelle Schmitter, historical preservation consultant, points to damage

Michelle Schmitter, historical preservation consultant, points to damage

Historic Preservation Consultant Michelle Schmitter says although the iron fence surrounding the Capitol has held up well, it needs significant work not only to prevent it from coming apart but to restore it historically.

“Considering it’s 140 years old, it has held up really well,” she said.

When plans were made to paint the wrought/cast iron fence, she credited Buildings and Grounds staff for recognizing the structure needed a lot more than just paint.

After all, Schmitter said, it’s listed as a “contributing resource” on state’s 1975 nomination to put the Capitol on the National Register of Historic Places.

She said the fence has suffered not only from the ravages of time — rust and erosion and cracking of its sandstone base — but damage from such things as vehicle accidents and, in one case, a huge elm tree limb that crashed down onto the fence right next to the Blasdel building.

She said a number of pieces are missing including bolts and other fasteners — angled “backstays” that help keep the fence line straight and cast iron urns that sit atop the fence posts.

“Water is the biggest challenge to iron work in general,” Schmitter said.

Water also has caused spalling and other problems with the sandstone base, which suffered even more damage when concrete was used to patch it. Inflexible concrete, she said, eventually breaks free causing more damage to the sandstone.

The base is the fence’s “weakest link,” she said.

But the fence has stood up well, making an August 1875 report in the Nevada Appeal seem prophetic: “Some of the posts of the new capitol fence were put in place yesterday. They are plain but substantial looking and will probably stand considerable wear and tear for years to come.”

In addition, she said, the end posts topped with lights inside plastic globes that were installed in 1980 are historically inappropriate and should go. Those end posts, she said, are also the biggest structural concern since several of them can be made to rock back and forth with just hand pressure.

Because of those unsound end posts and missing or broken backstays, she said the fence “undulates,” — it’s not straight any more.

Her recommendation is to have new urns and other pieces cast by a foundry such as Historical Arts and Casting in Utah — along with new end posts that match those originally installed in 1911 when electric lights were originally put in.

Damage to the sandstone base would also be repaired, possibly with new blocks from the same prison quarry that provided the originals.

Her best estimate is the work would cost a total of $483,974.

But if replacement parts are needed, the project gets a major break from the foresight of previous B&G administrators Terry Sullivan and Mike Meizel who, when several sections of the fence was taken down to make way for construction behind the Capitol, preserved those sections in B&G’s storage yard.

Schmitter said during her study of the fence and its history, she discovered it was originally painted a dark brown.

“I think everybody wants to go back to brown,” she said.

Until 1875, the Capitol was surrounded by a wooden fence. In that year, the Nevada Assembly appropriated $25,000 for repairs on the Capitol and construction of the iron fence.

It was titled: “An Act to provide the protection of the State Capitol building and for the improvement of the grounds surrounding it.”

Longtime Carson City teacher Hannah Clapp won the bid to put up the fence for $5,550 including freight charges. Some 1,652 linear feet of fence was constructed by Robert Wood & Company of Philadelphia and shipped as completed 10-12 foot long sections by rail to Carson City. Schmitter described it in her analysis as ”an outstanding example of a classical design.”

“The Capitol Fence is a significant historic structure with an important connection to Nevada’s history that requires on-going maintenance for preservation.”

In her year studying the fence, its construction and its history, “I’ve come to realize what a valuable resource it is,” Schmitter said. “I just want to see this thing preserved.”


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