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State House remodeling ambitions grow wider

Several other State House upgrades have been completed in recent months, including fixes to the roof and exterior.

Essdras M. Suarez/Globe Staff

Several other State House upgrades have been completed in recent months, including fixes to the roof and exterior.

Last year, it was Governor Deval Patrick who announced he was spending $9 million to renovate his office.

Then the Senate unveiled a $20 million plan to completely renovate its chamber after an architectural firm found cracked cornices, leaning columns, and pieces falling from the ceiling.

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On Monday, the House, eyeing all the work being planned in the neighborhood, quietly approved an amendment of its own, adding $20 million for a makeover of its chamber.

But while Senate President Therese Murray has in recent weeks detailed the work planned for the Senate chamber, a spokesman for Speaker Robert A. DeLeo declined to comment on why House leaders approved their own remodeling job. The amendment passed the House on a voice vote during a sparsely attended informal session on Monday.

The amendment was authored by House Ways and Means chairman Brian Dempsey, who did not return messages. A Dempsey spokeswoman said she did not have information readily available about the project.

Representative Paul J. Donato, a member of DeLeo’s leadership team who presided during Monday’s informal session, said he, too, was not sure of the work being planned for the House chamber.

But he said House leaders have been hoping for years to refurbish their gilded chamber, which was built in 1895 and is made of Honduran mahogany. Lawmakers, he said, have discussed installing new carpeting and a WiFi system and repairing water-damaged murals above the speaker’s rostrum.

House members reached Monday could not explain why the price tag was $20 million, apart from it being the same sum as the Senate project.

“I don’t know the details,” said Representative Antonio Cabral, who chairs the committee responsible for financing state construction projects. The funding for the House renovation, he said, was not included when his committee initially approved the borrowing bill several months ago.

While the work is being performed, the House’s 160 members may need to meet in session elsewhere, perhaps in a large, segmented conference room on the first floor, Donato said.

Murray said the state’s 40 senators will have to temporarily work from a vacant former document room on the fourth floor — which will need its own renovation — while their third-floor chamber, originally built in 1798, undergoes a major remake.

“It’s structurally not in good shape, so it really needs an extensive overhaul,” Murray said Monday.

She said the Senate chamber work will probably not begin until next year at the earliest, after she steps down and Senator Stanley C. Rosenberg takes over as Senate president. Murray said she wanted to begin the project years ago but could not because the economy plummeted, forcing cuts throughout state government.

She said she did not know how long the project will take.

Formal planning for the Senate’s reconstruction job began in 2009, when the Senate hired an architectural firm, CBT of Boston, to inspect the chamber, which is directly under the golden dome, in the oldest part of the State House. Murray said CBT found columns pulling away from the wall, a balcony at risk of collapsing, and pieces that had fallen from the ceiling.

“Obviously, I’m very concerned about the condition of the chamber and have been for a long time,” she said. “We’ve been trying to get to this point. We were almost there, but we hit the recession and we had to back off.”

Senate Ways and Means chairman Stephen Brewer took a reporter on a brief tour through the chamber, pointing out a gap in a wall that he said has been widening over the years.

“You have humidity. You have wood-boring critters. And you have a lot of years in an urban environment,” he said. He acknowledged the work is “expensive as all get-out” but said it is necessary to preserve a historic treasure.

“You work in a museum, but you’re the seat of government,” he said.

It is not clear whether the House suffers similar structural problems or if it has been inspected by an outside firm.

Financing for both renovation projects is included in one large annual bond bill that authorizes the state to borrow money for public construction projects across Massachusetts. The provision allowing the Senate’s $20 million renovation has passed both branches. The House amendment authorizing its own $20 million overhaul will need Senate approval to become law. Both chambers are scheduled to hold their final formal sessions of the year on Thursday.

The legislation will also need approval from the governor.

“I know that it’s never popular to invest in public infrastructure — certainly, if it’s the State House — but this is the oldest, continuously operating legislative building in America,” Patrick said Monday. “It’s a museum. And there are thousands and thousands of visitors who come through. I think it reflects the seriousness with which we take — or ought to take — state government, if we maintain our state government assets.”

Patrick’s own third-floor office is undergoing extensive work to repair cracked walls, drafty windows, and aging heating, cooling, and plumbing systems. He is also adding state-of-the-art video and telecommunications equipment to allow the office to be used as a command center during emergencies.

Since late last year, Patrick has been working from a relatively spartan office on the second-floor, which was formerly occupied by his chief legal counsel. Construction in his suite is slated for completion next month, and Patrick is due to leave office in January.

Several other State House upgrades have been completed in recent months, including fixes to the roof and exterior, and the installation of a lightning rod, as well as wall plastering and other repairs in the Globe’s State House bureau.

Murray said the Senate’s temporary chamber in the former document room will be outfitted with television screens on the outside to allow the public to watch the proceedings. But she acknowledged the public may not be able to fit inside to watch senators debate in person.

“It’s not as big as the chamber, obviously,” she said. “But what are you going to do?”

Michael Levenson can be reached at michael.levenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.
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