Builders past, present honored for work on Minnesota’s Capitol

(By Michael Moore, Editor, Union Advocate) Renee Gisch brought her grandchildren to the Capitol so they could see the restoration work she and hundreds of other tradespeople did over the last four years. Nearby, Daniel Reibestein and his mother, Donna, paid tribute to the work his great grandfather put into the landmark building’s original construction more than a century ago.

Construction workers past and present were honored Aug. 13 at the Capitol, part of a weekend-long grand reopening of the building after a four-year, $310 million restoration project.

State lawmakers, including Gov. Mark Dayton, praised union tradespeople for their work on the renovation project, which revitalized the Cass Gilbert-designed structure built from 1896 to 1905.

“It was really amazing to see the personal pride in everybody’s eyes as they worked on this building,” project architect Kimberly Sandbulte said. “A lot of what is here is personal handwork of the craftsmen from 100 years ago, and everybody working on this building really wanted to honor and preserve that history and that legacy.”

Celebrating the originals

It was fitting, then, that descendants of some of those workers were on hand for the ceremony.

Research into the Capitol’s original builders, spearheaded by the University of Minnesota’s Labor Education Service, dug up information on over 600 workers and provided the basis for a documentary film, website and curriculum.

The curriculum, in turn, prompted eighth-grade students in Owatonna to lobby their legislators for a plaque – unveiled at the end of the Aug. 13 Capitol ceremony – honoring six workers killed on the jobsite during construction.

Daniel and Donna Reibestein were among about 100 descendants who turned out for the unveiling. Daniel eagerly shared a photo of his great grandfather Arnold Reibestein, as well as a copy of a payroll ledger showing the stonecutter earned $5 in overtime wages on the project.

Descendants of another original builder, John Kuettel, organized a family reunion around the Capitol ceremony, printing t-shirts with the stonecutter’s image displayed on the back. Some 70 family members attended, Kuettel’s grandson, Norb Adelmann, said, including “a lot of cousins I hadn’t met before.”

“This building is really important to everyone in Minnesota, but it has a special place in the memories and the hearts of the descendants of the builders,” said Randy Croce, the “Who Built Our Capitol?” project director.

Once in a lifetime

The renovation project created 1.4 million hours of work for tradespeople – and posed some unique challenges, JE Dunn Construction’s Jeff Callinan said.

“We marvel and we look at the fine art, and we look at the stained glass and we look at the stone carving – and that’s all magnificent work, incredible,” he said. “But putting modern day systems into a 1905 building is not easy.

“So the electricians and the plumbers and the sheet metal workers and the tile setters – the work they did to pack the systems seamlessly into this Cass Gilbert gem is in itself a marvel.”

Several speakers also celebrated the project for ensuring the people working on the statehouse reflected the demographic makeup of the state. Contractors and Building Trades unionssuccessfully met a 40 percent benchmark for hiring women and minority tradespeople on the project.

“There were a lot of women – and that’s what we need,” said Gisch, a member of Operating Engineers Local 49 who worked nine months on the project. “We had artists, stone workers, a lot of women in there. They do detailed work, and they do it well – better, you could say.”

Gisch and other workers who attended the ceremony spoke of an added sense of pride that comes with working on the Capitol – even for one worker from Wisconsin.

Dave Chell, a member of Laborers Local 563, drove to St. Paul from Grantsburg to work on the renovation. For 18 months he worked chopping holes in the Capitol’s stone to make way for a new ventilation system.

“This job was special even though I’m from Wisconsin,” Chell said. “Just to be part of it was amazing.”

“Projects like this are ones that you drive by and talk to your children and grandchildren about,” Minnesota Building Trades President Harry Melander said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for those of us who work in the Building Trades.”

Article reprinted from the Saint Paul Union Advocate.