Granite Geek: Deep down, State House is just an old, awkwardly constructed office building

  • Terry Pfaff, COO of the General Court, peers into a tiny crawlspace above his third-floor office during an informal tour of the State House on May 31, 2019. A crawlspace above a room is officially called a “cockloft.”  David Brooks—Monitor Staff

  • An example of mixed technologies hidden deep within the State House: Networking equipment for the Internet service exists underneath knob-and-tube electrical wiring that dates back more than century. May 31, 2019. David Brooks—Monitor Staff

  • When Terry Pfaff, COO of the General Court, looks out over the State House lawn he sees places where tree roots are interfering with pipes. May 31, 2019. David Brooks—Monitor Staff

  • Old terracotta brick can be found inside crawl space in the State House.  May 31, 2019. David Brooks—Monitor Staff

  • Terracotta brick in the ceiling of a tiny crawl space is shown over a matt of wiring that has been placed for decades. The crawl space is less than two feet high. May 31, 2019. David Brooks—Monitor Staff

  • That half-dome was once the front of the statehouse, but it’s now covered by the current portico and is only visible from inside. May 31, 2019. David Brooks—Monitor Staff

  • The logo of the State House bicentennial on a shirt work by Terry Pfaff, COO of the General Court, on May 31, 2019. The shirts are for sale to tourists, too.  David Brooks—Monitor Staff

  • Terry Pfaff, COO of the General Court, in his State House office on May 31, 2019.  David Brooks—Monitor Staff

  • Terry Pfaff, COO of the General Court, in the State House on May 31, 2019. David Brooks—Monitor Staff

Monitor staff
Published: 6/3/2019 4:09:23 PM

People think of the New Hampshire State House as a bastion of democracy and a glorious symbol of our granite-willed independence, but here’s another way to think of it: A really old office building with some really weird wiring.

“When you have a circuit go out on the third floor, you might have to go to the circuit box in the basement to figure it out, if you don’t have a schematic. And a lot of the schematics have been lost over the years,” said Terry Pfaff. “Once we found an old circuit box that had been out of service for years but still had power. ... And there was a light in the speaker’s office, we couldn’t figure out why the power wasn’t going to it. It ended up the switch was way out in the hallway. One of the cleaning folks had hit the switch and it didn’t seem to do anything, so it stayed off.”

Pfaff’s official title is Chief Operating Officer of the General Court, but his job often resembles that of a building superintendent – what apartment dwellers call “the super.”

“Yeah, that’s me,” Pfaff said Friday, after offering a tour of some of the inner workings of the State House in preparation for the building’s bicentennial celebration.

The COO position was created last year to help keep things running, both physically and operationally, in the State House and a couple of adjoining buildings that are used by the Legislature. The position oversees a staff as numerous as 156 people during the peak of the legislative session.

Pfaff was given the job by the Democratic leadership following four terms as chief of staff of the New Hampshire House under Republican speakers, a rare moment of bipartisanship in today’s politics.

Old and in the way

From the super’s point of view, the State House is a gloriously historic but inefficient hodgepodge of construction types and technologies that has to function as the working home to hundreds of people in the public eye, without all those flat roofs leaking too much.

“A leak in the president’s chamber, the speaker’s chamber – that’s a priority call,” Pfaff said. “Or in the halls, the public areas. You drop everything!”

Things are hopping for Pfaff’s team right now partly because of the building’s 200th birthday – Pfaff couldn’t talk to me last Wednesday because he was overseeing a display of copies of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution – and partly because the heating system is being revamped following the demise of the Concord Steam company.

Lots of other changes are in the works, such as testing the use of mini-split air-conditioners instead of the window air-conditioners that can be found in most rooms currently, disrupting the granite exterior lines of the State House.

“If I had a quick million bucks, I’d put AC in the whole building,” Pfaff said. “This is a hot building!”

It’s also something of a mish-mosh.

The original structure opened in 1819 after three years of construction at a cost of $83,000.

This was more than twice the original budget, by the way. Scott Herrick, president of Swenson Granite, gave me a back-of-envelope estimate of what the cost would be today just for the Concord granite.

He based it on reports that the foundation and upper walls of the original State House, not including the columns, overhang and ornate work, took 4,000 tons of granite cut from the quarry on Rattlesnake Hill.

“At today’s price per-cubic-foot for raw quarry blocks of Concord stone, the 4,000 tons would be worth approximately $1.6 million,” Herrick wrote me in an email. “The cost for labor to finish, transport and install the stone at today’s rates would be mind-numbing.”

Lots of changes

Since it opened, the State House has had wings added, the exterior expanded, connecting tunnels dug, technologies upgraded, elevators installed, and in 1910 the whole thing received an internal steel frame to keep the stone and brick structure from slipping. You can see bits of that frame if you’re escorted into the proper part of the attic.

“It was made with hot rivets,” Pfaff pointed out as we peered under massive beams somewhere above the legislative chambers.

The building long predates electric lights, telephones and the internet, so there has been a constant race to fit in the newest technologies without ruining historical significance.

Sometimes upgrades are reasonably straight-forward, such as the replacement of virtually all lighting with cheaper, more easily controlled LEDs, and sometimes it’s more of a struggle.

“We still have some remnants of knob-and-tube wiring,” Pfaff added, referring to an early method of stringing electric wires inside buildings. “It’s not active – well, not usually. ... As the building has gotten upgraded, one of the things they neglected to do is remove the old wiring. Now at every juncture, we try to remove it.”

Then there are old pipes. “We’re always running across pipes that nobody knew about,” said Pfaff.

That includes pipes from the days when the lighting was fueled by coal gas pumped in from the brick gasholder building on South Main Street. Other pipes exist from previous drainage systems or old plumbing fixtures, or sometimes for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.

“When you open a wall, you don’t know what you’re going to find. We try to chase a pipe to figure out where it goes,” said Pfaff.

Even the actual structure of the building can sometimes be a mystery.

“We bump into false walls we didn’t know were there. Like anything that has been renovated so many times, it has gotten messy,” Pfaff said.

Like an old house, but grander

Many of these issues will be familiar to anybody who deals with an old building, of which there are many in New Hampshire. As Pfaff put it: “It’s like your own house, but much grander.”

Grander, indeed. Like the State House, my home has a lack of right angles, ancient wiring that I think is no longer hot, and a basement floor that is sometimes damp and always uneven. But I don’t ever plan to send out oil portraits to be cleaned and re-stretched, nor have a dome atop the building where teams replace the gold leaf.

Another complication I don’t face is the historical nature of the State House, which Pfaff must always keep in mind. For example, when a portion of the gallery seating was removed to make room for wheelchairs, it took special care – and extra money, of course – to ensure that the railings matched those from the 19th century.

Even upgrading the building’s nine bathrooms has to be done carefully.

“You’re faced with the fact that this is a working office building, a working legislative office in a museum-quality building,” Pfaff said. “You don’t want it to look like McDonald’s.”

Speaking of grubby places, among the place that will be upgraded in 2020 is the press room, where generations of reporters have toiled and sweated.

That room has one of the ugliest floors I’ve ever seen and is filled with desks that, judging from appearance, either date back to the Civil War or were requisitioned from a World War II battleship. If Pfaff manages to make it look like a 21st-century office, then he can accomplish anything.

More geek in your week

If you want more geek in your week, listen to David Brooks talk about his stories on the GraniteGeek podcast, at granitegeek.concordmonitor.com/podcast, or listen to him talk with Chris Ryan on WKXL radio at soundcloud.com/wkxl, or read his blog and subscribe to free weekly newsletter at GraniteGeek.org.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)



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