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Monday, March 5, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Capitol did 'remarkably well'

Seattle Times staff reporter

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OLYMPIA - Workers rappelled off the Capitol dome yesterday for a close inspection of 10 suspect columns that they found were secure amidst other earthquake damage on the stone-block building.

But the Capitol will remain closed while a splintered stone buttress beneath the dome is repaired and officials take a closer look at new worries in the 73-year-old building, including ceilings in the House and Senate chambers and a five-ton, bronze chandelier hanging in the rotunda.

After the closest survey of the building since Wednesday's earthquake, engineers and architects said they were impressed with how well the Legislative Building, as the Capitol is known formally, came through the quake.

"I think the building did remarkably well," said Marsha Tadano Long, director of the Department of General Administration. "The work that was done to earthquake-proof the building was extraordinarily done."

They are so pleased that they are bringing out of retirement a man who helped put the Capitol back together after the last major quake, 36 years ago.

Victor Gray, a structural engineer retired to Port Townsend, was on his way to a golf game in Sequim when the earthquake hit Wednesday morning. From a full career that included work on the Freeway Park garage, rehabilitation of Pike Place Market and extensive work at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, it was the Capitol that jumped into Gray's mind.

"I've always been concerned about it," he said yesterday. "One of the things engineers worry about is, `Did I do it right? Will it stand a major earthquake?' I was very worried about an earthquake of that intensity."

Victor O. Gray & Co. was called in to help inspect the Capitol the day after the 1965 earthquake that registered 6.5 on the Richter scale. Gray remained involved for a decade and designed earthquake upgrades in the 1970s. He retired in 1992.

He was back a day after last week's earthquake.

On Thursday, Gray toured the Capitol with Michael Wright, a structural engineer with Swenson Say Fagét, a Seattle firm designing a $111 million rehabilitation of the Legislative Building.

Wright, 43, had already learned to rely on Gray's intimate knowledge of the Capitol. Even amidst the cracks, Wright said that it was clear that the two earthquake-proofing jobs Gray did saved the building from suffering much more serious damage.

Gray, 74, is responsible for two major changes to the stone-block building: adding thick concrete walls and steel beams.

Damage after the 1965 quake was much more extensive than what has been found since last week. Although one buttress has splintered, 36 years ago the entire buttress level of the Capitol was in danger of collapsing. Gray remembers cracks through which he could see daylight and gaps big enough to fit his arm in.

After 1965, workers installed a 65-foot-high cement wall below the dome to reinforce the brick buttresses. A steel frame was also installed and tied into that new wall so exterior sandstone could be anchored.

Gray wrote a report in September 1973 outlining the need for more work, even though the building had survived two major quakes.

"However, to count upon a building to continue to absorb major earthquake shocks without expecting further damage would be inappropriate inasmuch as cracking and internal damage are accumulative and a point will be reached at which the more rigid elements will give way and transmit forces to more frangible elements which will, in turn, cause further deterioration," Gray wrote.

He later designed solid concrete walls that reinforced masonry work in the House and Senate chambers. Huge steel I-beams also were installed to tie the chambers to the rotunda portion of the Capitol under the dome.

"When you consider the time it was done and what was known about earthquakes, it is really quite remarkable how well the building has performed," said Dwayne Harkness, chief architect with the Department of General Administration.

Harkness met with Gray on Thursday and said, "I could tell Vic was pleased with what he had done."

Gray said what he saw Thursday "didn't bother me a bit. I thought the building came through wonderfully."

When he was here Thursday, workers hadn't yet discovered that some of the columns may have shifted when Wednesday's quake rocked the dome. But he said that as long as the columns are stable - as workers determined yesterday - it should not be a big worry.

"In fact it could have been built out of plumb to begin with," he said. "Who said they were all perfect, right?"

Gray has been asked to return to Olympia this week for more consultations.

Wright and his colleagues have some tools that weren't available to Gray.

Yesterday, workers dangling from ropes marked columns and buttresses under the dome so the building can be checked each day by laser survey instruments to see if the building is stable.

Also yesterday, workers allowed lawmakers and their staff back in the building a few at a time for 15 minutes to gather up essential files and equipment.

This morning the Senate will convene in an adjacent building normally used for committee hearings.

Parts of the Capitol remain off-limits, even for short periods of time. The rotunda is closed because of fears that the massive chandelier may not be safely attached to its 101-foot chain.

The chandelier, the largest ever produced by the Tiffany studios and big enough to park a Volkswagen Bug in, may be lowered for a closer look. Unlike other Tiffany chandeliers in the Legislative Building, the huge lamp in the rotunda is held by just one chain.

One chandelier outside the Senate was found hanging from its safety chain, said Andy Stepelton, senior property manager for the Department of General Administration.

The ceilings in the House and Senate are also a worry. The ceilings are plaster on a steel frame that is suspended on steel straps. Both chambers are littered with bits of plaster from above.

A top priority is to secure the splintered buttress, Stepelton said. He said supports will be installed to keep the fractured piece from falling and to prevent any further deterioration of the area above the buttress.

David Postman can be reached at 360-943-9882 or at dpostman@seattletimes.com.

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