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July 18, 2014

Historic icon raised to celebrate Capitol’s 100th birthday

OKLAHOMA CITY — It was with great fanfare nearly a century ago that Oklahomans crowded into cars or horse-drawn buggies and paraded to 23rd and Lincoln.

Anticipation had been building for nearly four years, ever since Oklahomans at the polls in 1910 made the monumental decision to move the state capital from Guthrie to Oklahoma City. After much deliberation, state officials had decided on a plot of land just north of downtown for the new Capitol.

So it was with excitement that thousands crowded around as Oklahoma’s second governor, Lee Cruce, an Ardmore man, raised an iron pick on July 20, 1914, and broke ground for what would become the cornerstone of the 452,000 square foot building.

A Chandler man trying out a new-fangled invention — known as moving pictures — captured it all on film so the moment could be shown in South America and Europe. His footage has since vanished into history, despite the best efforts of the Oklahoma Historical Society to find it.

A photographer stood on top of a streetcar and captured it all in still images.

On Thursday, to commemorate the past and hail the future, officials gathered at the Capitol with historic photos and the now iconic pick ax. They had planned to gather next to the cornerstone at the southwest side of the building, but a rainy morning moved the celebration indoors to the newly renovated ceremonial Supreme Court chambers.

Until 1930, the pick ax sat in the basement of the Capitol but is now kept in a vault in the custody of the Oklahoma Historical Society. It's brought out for the occasional exhibit or occasion. Only five people can get inside the vault. Even the Historical Society's executive director, Bob Blackburn, doesn’t have access.

The infamous pick looks much like it might have a decade ago. Brown-poled with a silver top that is going gold on one end, it still bears the inscription written in white pen a century ago: “Pick used by Gov. Lee Cruce to turn the first ground for the State Capitol Bldg," with the date.

“We’ve taken good care of it,” Blackburn said. He gently handled the pick with a pair of white gloves to prevent any damage.

On Thursday, the pick symbolized a bridge between old and new.

“This building is something I’m very passionate about,” said Trait Thompson, State Capitol project manager. “This building ties us directly to our history in the state of Oklahoma. This building is something that we can all be proud of.”

On the minds of many these days is the $120 million, taxpayer-funded project that Thompson will oversee to renovate the ailing structure in which Oklahomans are finding it harder to take pride. Leaky pipes, falling concrete and other dangers plague the building.

By the end of the year, officials expect to begin restoring the limestone exterior, which has spilled chunks of concrete the size of footballs down toward unsuspecting visitors. The situation is so dire that officials have installed barricades, closed off the main entrance and erected scaffolding in places to prevent injuries.

While things have changed, amazingly enough, the Indiana limestone quarry that produced the exterior stone is still in operation a century later. That will allow officials to repair the façade with matching masonry.

Work on the Capitol's interior is expected to begin by the end of 2015.

Officials said one word defines the project: “patience.”

The entire project is expected to be complete in four to six years.

“We are going to have a building that will last and Oklahomans can be proud of for the next 100 years or so,” Thompson promised.

Janelle Stecklein is the Oklahoma state reporter for CNHI. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com or on Twitter at @ReporterJanelle.

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