The Trenton Times
One of Trenton’s treasures, and New Jersey’s, is a deteriorating mess.
The executive wing of the State House, home to the offices of the governor, treasurer, secretary of state, their staffs and the press corps, needs up to $90 million in structural, electrical, fire safety and historic work. Much of the decay is out of sight; its visible signs include paint flaking from the stucco walls and chipping off nearly 60 rotting window frames.
It’s not as though the structure is expendable. Buried in this portion of the State House is all that remains of the original 1792 capitol, a section of roof support beams pegged together in a third-floor maintenance room. The rest of the wing has accrued over the decades, but every part is redolent of New Jersey history and the parade of people who have governed the state, some worthily, others less so.
In the early 1990s, the legislative wing at the rear of the State House was restored and enlarged by the State Building Authority at a cost of $64.5 million, and the next-door State House Annex was remodeled and a subterranean parking garage built for $75.3 million. The golden dome was transformed from a drab eyesore to a glittering showpiece in 1999, partly with the help of private donations, including schoolchildren’s pennies. These projects represented the right way to exercise stewardship of a historic treasure.
But the executive wing has been neglected. From Tom Kean to Richard Codey, six governors and acting governors have refused to endorse spending the necessary sums for its restoration (and to evacuate the governor’s office themselves for the year or more the job would take). Instead, on their watch, officials continued a decades-old story of ad hoc improvements and improvisations. To try to bring the State House into the age of air conditioning and computers and to accommodate a growing and changing bureaucracy, workmen have violated respectable practice – to say nothing of building and fire codes – by installing wiring and ducts wherever they could be wedged and partitioning off corners and byways for extra office space. But a large number of flaws that were identified in a study four years ago by an architectural firm remain, including offices with no sprinklers, inadequate outdoor fire escapes, dead-end corridors, hidden asbestos and lead paint, and barriers everywhere to access by the disabled.
In 2002, the Assembly voted to allow the Building Authority to borrow $80 million to do the executive wing, but the Senate failed to act. Neither Democrat Jon Corzine nor Republican Douglas Forrester, the two major candidates for governor this year, has expressed any interest in proceeding with the renovation, giving as a reason New Jersey’s precarious finances.
But a state that boasts of its leading role in American history, a state with an educated and prosperous population, deserves better than that. Donna Bakelaar of Raritan Township, president of Friends of the State House, told The Star-Ledger that her organization wants to see the executive-wing work accomplished to complete the restoration of the capitol, and said donations could help pay the cost.
“If at any time the Legislature and governor would like us to play a role in the raising of funds from private entities – through schoolchildren, for example – we would be happy to consider that,” she told the newspaper.
It’s an offer the state shouldn’t pass up. New Jerseyans are proud of their State House. Their leaders should give them the chance to show it.