lighting and electrical

Relighting a Statehouse

St. Louis Antique Lighting replicated a number of original Mitchell, Vance and Co. fixtures for the Senate Chamber in the historic Kansas Statehouse.

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A design team assembled by Barry Greis, AIA, architect of the state capitol, researched and replicated the lighting for the Senate Chamber in the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka, KS. Construction on the historic capitol began in 1866 and lasted for 37 years as wings were added. Gary Steffy of Gary Steffy Lighting Design created the drawings to replicate the original Mitchell, Vance fixtures, which were then manufactured by St. Louis Antique Lighting. All current photos: Steve Swalwell, Architectural Fotographics

By Gary H. Behm, IES

When Treanor Architects of Lawrence, KS, the architectural firm leading the restoration of the 19th-century Kansas State Capitol in Topeka, KS, first looked at the Senate Chamber in 2000, the firm realized that relighting its stately historic interior was going to be a major challenge. Vance Kelley, AIA, of Treanor, put it this way: “Lighting is perhaps the most visible of building systems and thus can have an enormous impact on any historic preservation project. This was especially true at the Kansas Statehouse, where previous work to upgrade the systems had negatively impacted the historic character of the building. Meeting all of the technical and aesthetic objectives was going to be a formidable challenge.”

To meet that challenge, Barry Greis, AIA, architect of the state capitol, assembled a team made up of Treanor Architects; Schooley Caldwell and Associates, of Columbus, OH; William Seale, noted historian and architectural preservationist and Gary Steffy of Gary Steffy Lighting Design, Ann Arbor, MI. Led by Steffy, the design phase started in 2001, and lighting specifications were complete in April of 2004. St. Louis Antique Lighting was selected to produce the fixtures, which were installed in December of 2005. The project included 31 replicated Mitchell, Vance fixtures – five chandeliers, 16 gallery standards, six double-arm wall brackets and four nostrum standards. Four 16-arm chandeliers were mounted toward the corners of the room. These measure 6 ft., 2 ins. wide by 14 ft., 6 ins. tall. One larger (6 ft., 8 ins. by 21 ft., 7 ins. tall) 24-arm chandelier was mounted in the center of the room. A total of 88 gas shades were used on the chandeliers.

While the original fixtures were made primarily of slush-cast zinc, commonly referred to as white metal or pot metal, aluminum was substituted in the replications. Aluminum has similar weight, melting temperature and castability characteristics, but it is stronger and does not have some of the toxicity problems that zinc produces in the casting process. The original spinnings were of brass, and small ornamental details, such as the gas keys, were cast brass. In making the replicated fixtures, all structural elements were made of steel.

For the Senate Chamber project, the first challenge was to research the lighting history to discover what was historically authentic. The design team had the advantage of having access to original interior photographs of the chamber, supplied by the Kansas State Historical Society, along with some detail drawings from original plans. The historical photos offer several clear views of the chandeliers, wall brackets and standards.

Original historical photographs of the Senate Chamber supplied by the Kansas State Historical Society were a good source of information to Gary Steffy when he designed the lighting. This one dates to circa 1886.

It was known that very similar fixtures were illustrated in the Mitchell, Vance Catalog of 1876 (Dover Edition) and upon searching, the lighting designers discovered an illustration of a very large gasolier (plate 192) that exhibited many of the same casting designs used on the Senate gasoliers. (A gasolier operated on gas, as compared to an electrolier that used electricity or a chandelier, which used candles.) In addition, during the pre-bid phase, the lighting designer was able to examine a print of the actual Mitchell, Vance Senate gasolier from the catalog of a private collector.

It was no surprise that the fixture manufacturer for the Kansas Statehouse in the 1880s was Mitchell, Vance and Co. This firm was the premier manufacturer of high-quality gas lighting in the United States at the time. Incorporated in 1854, it operated until 1933, when it succumbed to the economic downturn of the Great Depression. It supplied the lighting fixtures for several state capitols and also received the highest award for gas lighting at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia. (For more on Mitchell, Vance and Co., see the introduction to the Dover Reprint of the 1876 Catalog and the description for plate 73 on page 155 of “Gaslighting in America,” both by Denys Peter Myers. Cynthia and Chris Allen have also reproduced a late 1890s Mitchell, Vance Catalog, Volume Three of their series on 19th century lighting.) With the original manufacturer identified and historical photos in hand, the designers had to fill in detail; determine scale, materials and finishes used for the fixtures and develop specifications, including modern lamping and controls. Scale was determined by extrapolating from the known size of various common elements of the fixtures, such as fitters and shades and also from the known sizes of other objects and architectural details shown in the photos.

Written descriptions from Mitchell, Vance, other period lighting catalogs from its competitors and background information from Seale provided information for the finishes used at the time. These fixtures were generally “decorated,” as opposed to using a simple monochromatic finish. Decorating meant that several colors (polychromatic) were used with contrasting levels of reflectivity; gilt next to matte, matte next to polished, polished next to antiqued and so on. Close examination of the historic black-and-white photos of the Senate Chamber fixtures revealed differences in texture and reflectivity, giving the design team clues to original finish treatments and material composition.

Michell, Vance and Co. gallery standards and wall brackets replicated by the design team following historical photos of the Senate Chamber were installed throughout the ornate room in their original locations.

This research contributed to the contract documents, providing a written specification, with historical photos attached, detailing the requirements for building the fixtures. Besides the historical photos, Steffy also developed a detailed drawing illustrating salient features of the fixtures. That drawing illustrates the next phase of luminaire design after the research and photo documentation. Steffy’s second challenge was to make these period designs light the chamber in a way that arguably evokes the 1880s but also meets the needs of modern legislative discourse. For the Senate Chamber, he specified five chandeliers, with a total of 88 “gas” shades enclosing 60-watt clear halogen flame-shaped candelabra base lamps to provide general illumination for the space. These were all to be dimmable, allowing for a “historic scene setting,” which means dimming them to a low output to simulate what is today popularized as the amount of light produced by the original gaslights.

The shades that enclosed the lamp were critical as they had to be large enough to enclose the specified lamp; be authentic in size, color and style but translucent enough for dimmed levels and diffuse enough to prevent glare at full luminosity. Plate 27 of the Mitchell, Vance catalog exhibits several shade styles, and Steffy chose No. 204, an etched shade with cut stars. Several sample shades were submitted to get the right combination of inside and outside etching to achieve the desired effect.

These mockups also revealed that the specified lamp in its clear version exhibited severe striation shadowing from the halogen capsule supports. Lamps were changed to white BT15 shape, 60-watt, medium base, resulting in the disappearance of any shadowing and a warm, even glow from the shade. The 10-in.-dia. elliptical shades were made of lead crystal and were hand engraved with 34 eight-pointed stars on the etched surface, arranged in a symmetrical three-row pattern, signifying that Kansas was the 34th state to join the Union.

Steffy also specified that the fixtures hang near their original mounting height to re-create a greater sense of warmth and dignified intimacy than is found in more modern suspensions, which place lights closer to the ceiling. He also wanted to avoid the standard solution of using “can” lights to supplement the decorative lighting, which would have required putting holes in the highly ornate decorative plaster ceiling. The original luminaire design exhibited a relatively large mid-stem ornament. With some dimensional modification, this ornament was made to house four 150-watt, 3,000K ceramic metal halide lamps, each pair separately circuited and used to both provide uplighting for the ornate ceiling and to indirectly light the chamber.

This AutoCad drawing of the replication Mitchell, Vance chandeliers shows the overall height of 14 ft., 6 ins. and a width of 6 ft., 2 ins. The two-tiered fixture has eight lights with gas shades on each level. Each shade is engraved with 34 stars, symbolizing the fact that Kansas was the 34th state to join the Union. Drawing: courtesy of St. Louis Antique Lighting

The specifications were sent to St. Louis Antique Lighting, and it faced the challenge of creating these products. With scanned enlargements of the historical photos side by side with the spec drawings, the task was to interpret these images and put every small detail on paper. Starting with pen and pencil, and then transferring to AutoCad, where each item was drawn full scale, then making use of periodic back-and-forth electronic exchanges with the lighting designer, the company submitted design and mechanical details until the entire fixture puzzle could be assembled into a single drawn unit. With only half of the fixture shown, the full-scale drawing was 3 ft. wide and 10 ft. long.

After drawings were approved, patterns were carved, tooling and molds were made and the parts were manufactured. A colorized, small-scale version of the drawing was printed to indicate which of the six different finish treatments each part was to receive. After the finish samples were submitted and approved, one completed fixture was finished, wired and assembled for the design team to review in fall of 2005 at the manufacturer’s facility. The team made some final tweaks and after completion, the luminaires were delivered by St. Louis Antique Lighting to the Senate Chamber for onsite assembly and installation in mid-December of 2005. From start to finish, it took St. Louis Antique Lighting 18 months to complete the work.

The Senate Chamber lighting is only one part of the work being done on the Kansas State Capitol project. Planning for restoring the building began in 1997; construction started in December of 2001 and is expected to be complete in April 2010. A total of 366 lighting fixtures (21 different types) have already been manufactured for the East Wing, where the Senate Chamber is located.

The president of the Kansas Senate, Stephan Morris, put it this way: “The State Capitol is Kansas’s most significant and visible historic landmark. A critical part of its preservation is insight into the vision and commitment of those who built this magnificent ‘people’s house’ on the prairie. Our historic structure study has served as a guide to the historically appropriate restoration of our beautiful statehouse. We want to achieve a fully functional state capitol that is faithful to its past."

Gary Behm is the president of St. Louis Antique Lighting Co., in St. Louis, MO. He is also a member of IESNA, Illuminating Engineering Society of North America, and often serves as period lighting consultant on historic projects.

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