A steel-covered walkway is being installed at the State Capitol to protect visitors from getting plunked in the head by mortar chunks falling off the 86-year-old building.

The state doesn’t have the $40 million to $60 million necessary to fix the disintegrating mortar and fixtures that hold about 8,500 limestone panels, each weighing more than a ton, to the steel skeleton of the 34-story building. So, the plan is to erect what officially is called a “temporary protective structure” that will shelter visitors from falling building bits.

“We’re in holding pattern until the money is appropriated to proceed,” said Jacques Berry, spokesman for the Division of Administration. “We’re not moving forward.”

In the meantime, the steel structure will allow the main entrance to reopen in February after being closed nearly three years ago because of safety concerns. Except for a narrow passage to the top of the “monumental stairway,” the granite steps, each engraved with the name of a U.S. state, will be mostly closed and barricaded.

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Nearly every state agency has some presence in the tower. The governor has an office on the 4th floor and state treasurer has a suite on the third. Louisiana House and Senate members meet in chambers, separated by Memorial Hall, on either side of the tower. The next legislative session convenes April 8. Governors traditionally are inaugurated on the Capitol steps, an event that will take place about this time next year.

A National Historic Landmark, the Capitol took a little more than a year to build and cost $5 million.

After moving LSU to its present location, then-Gov. Huey Long decided to build a new Capitol on the site of the old campus. He secured approval to raise money and sold bonds in September 1930. Weiss Dreyfous and Seiferth, an architectural firm in New Orleans, had the plans ready by November and construction began Dec. 16, 1930. Construction was completed in March 1931 and the building was dedicated May 16, 1932.

Little maintenance has been done since, Berry said.

The Division of Administration had embarked on a waterproofing project when workers discovered deterioration, using technology that provided visual images behind walls, in the mortar and steel joints keeping the limestone façade connected to the steel superstructure of the skyscraper. The finding, coupled with bits of the building that periodically fell off, led the Division of Administration to close for safety’s sake the main entrance, which opens into Memorial Hall.

A $6.5 million pilot project began to look at what was needed and to make some repairs to the tower. But the project didn’t have enough money to go beyond the 6th floor.

The next phase of the project would cut out and repoint the mortar, hone the limestone, plus clean up the statues and friezes that decorate the building. But that cost could be as much as $60 million. “The scaffolding alone would cost $10 million,” Berry said.

For more than a decade state government has had trouble raising enough revenues to pay the bills. With appropriations routinely cut, agencies postponed maintenance on state buildings and used that money to cover other expenses. The state’s colleges and universities, for instance, have nearly $2 billion of deferred maintenance projects, such as roofs that need to be replaced, classrooms that need to be cooled, and leaks that need to be stopped in libraries.

Gov. John Bel Edwards recommended setting aside about 13 percent of this year’s construction budget for doing delayed fix ups on college campuses and in state buildings.

The “temporary protective structure,” which doesn’t really fit in with the State Capitol’s art deco motif, can stay in place up to five years under the rules that govern National Historic Landmarks.

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