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Big quake would doom Capitol

The memory of Richard Nixon dwells in the top of the State Capitol.

Painted in bold red letters on the inside of the building's copper-covered dome is "LONG LIVE NIXON!!!" along with dozens of other graffiti tributes to everything from hard-rocking Judas Priest to peace on Earth.

But should a major earthquake rock mostly serene Salt Lake Valley, the 85-year-old Capitol Hill centerpiece would crumble like the Nixon presidency.

"If we'd had a 7.0 earthquake here today, we'd all be sitting in the basement," Senate President Al Mansell, R-Sandy, said on the day a temblor cracked the dome of the Washington Statehouse in Olympia.

David Hart, executive director of the Capitol Preservation Board, took a firsthand look last week at that state's Capitol, which had undergone some structural reinforcing prior to the Feb. 28 quake.

"The little bit of work they did saved the building," Hart said.

In comparison, University of Utah civil engineer Larry Reaveley, who accompanied Hart to Olympia, called the Utah Capitol "brittle."

"Our basic building is a much weaker building than theirs. Our building is a much more vulnerable building. And we have done nothing to improve it. Nothing," he said.

The Capitol remains as it did on its dedication day, Oct. 9, 1916, when President Joseph F. Smith of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declared it "shall stand until God shall shake the earth and the mountains fall to the ground."

Freestanding granite columns, held in place by gravity, support the structure. The dome and its base are simply stacked on top of each other. There's nothing tying the building together either top to bottom or end to end.

An earthquake measuring an estimated 6.8 to 7.3 magnitude on the Richter scale would probably cause the columns to cave in and the dome to topple, Hart said, noting "Olympia was 6.8."

Had the 400 schoolchildren visiting the Washington Capitol been in the Utah Capitol during an earthquake of that magnitude, few would have made it out. The fallen columns would have blocked paths to the doors. There are no emergency exits.

"There are very many compelling reasons to fix that building," said Reaveley, who also serves on the building's preservation board.

Hart is anxious to take the load off the columns with shear walls and install base isolators — huge vulcanized rubber blocks that allow the building to wobble without falling down. The dome needs to be tied on to keep it from being toppled. Emergency exits also must be built.

That and much more are part of the plan that's at least four years and an estimated $200 million away.

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The critical seismic upgrade is part of a proposed 20-year, multimillion-dollar restoration and expansion on Capitol Hill. The Legislature has earmarked $41 million for the first phase.

Next spring, crews will demolish the cafeteria between the Capitol and State Office Building. A three-story building will rise in its place on the east side of the hill with an identical four-story edifice going up on the west side.

The idea for those two buildings is far from new.

Architect Richard Kletting's 1911 site plan included them as well as another building where the State Office Building now sits. "The amazing thing to us is that he provided for growth," Hart said.

The 15-member Capitol Preservation Board, including Gov. Mike Leavitt, the state Senate president and House speaker, want the two structures to blend with but not detract from the state "jewel."

"The one word that kept coming up time and time again was traditional," Hart said.

Instead of the ornate Corinthian columns that line the Capitol, the two new building will have plainer Doric columns.

The governor's, House, Senate and all other state offices are scheduled to move into the new buildings, totaling about 160,000 square feet, in 2005. With the Capitol empty, crews will begin the laborious job of making it earthquake-safe. The goal is to be back in by 2008.

Beyond the initial $41 million, lawmakers have not budgeted additional money for the project.

"The Legislature will have to do something every year," said Rep. Gerry Adair, R-Roy, a recently appointed preservation board member.

It wasn't a tough call this year with $650 million new revenue to spend. But Adair said ongoing appropriations might be "difficult" in lean years.