By AMANDA PETERKA
Capital News Service
LANSING - The lights usually dim at 6 p.m. in Michigan’s Capitol.
The schedule is meant to reduce energy use in Lansing’s historic centerpiece. But when
lawmakers are trying to pinch the state's pennies late into the night during budget crises,
lights glow long into the night, wasting energy and the very dollars that the Legislature is
trying to save.
"The last budget crunch – for a week straight -- the lighting wasn't reduced at all until 1
a.m.," said Steve Benkovsky, the Capitol’s operations manager who oversees the
building’s energy use.
Spotlights and incandescent bulbs keep the chambers glowing warmly through the night
— to mimic the Capitol’s original gas-lit rooms.
But maintaining appearances is costly. In 1879, when the Capitol was built, the state paid
electricity bills for only a handful of newly invented light bulbs. Michigan now pays up
to $30,000 a month in electric bills for lights to replicate that authentic image.
In her State of the State address, Gov. Jennifer Granholm said, “Our state government has
cut electricity use by 23 percent and saved taxpayers some $60 million over the past three
But Michigan's need to preserve the Capitol as a historical symbol makes it a “unique
animal” that can't follow the same energy regulations that the governor ordered for other
state buildings, Benkovsky said.
“This challenge is one we share with all historic buildings, and even a lot of museums,”
said Kerry Chartkoff, the former director of the Capitol Tour and Information Service.
The chief task is to find the character-defining elements of the building, and then find
technology that can be “incorporated into the building without having to destroy what
makes that building very special,” said Gene Hopkins, its preservation architect.
And for the 129-year-old structure, it’s the mood created when hanging incandescent
bulbs faintly illuminate the nine acres of interior walls decorated with gold leaf.
Chartkoff said, “The decorative paint is a hallmark. It’s very specific and beautiful, and
lighting affects the way colors look in this building.
“Compact fluorescent lights change color balance, and not for the better,” she added,
referring to the spiral-like lights that use less energy.
Rep. Mark Meadows, D-East Lansing, said that “when people come in and look at the
Capitol and see it looking essentially the same” as it did in 1879, “I think they feel a
sense of history of Michigan connected to the building a way that it’s hard for any of us
Although there’s a delicate balance between energy and history, not everything in the
Capitol is energy-wasteful.
Many changes were made during a major 1989-1992 restoration that won a national
preservation award and made the building more flexible for new technology.
For example, the ground floor and loading dock, where no tourists are allowed, have
more efficient lighting, and older windows everywhere were replaced with more efficient
Its lighting schedule has also been adapted.
Because lawmakers and visitors are in the building and police never stop patrolling its
corridors, lights always remain on. However, at 6 p.m., lighting is cut by 20 percent. By 1
a.m., it’s cut by 70 percent by dimming individual lights and shutting off others.
Of course, that all depends on how late legislators are present.
“Mondays and Fridays are easy, but Tuesday through Thursday is hard because they’re in
session,” said Benkovsky, the operations manager. “If they’re going to be late, we put the
lights down to 80 percent, but not more until they’re completely out.”
This doesn’t account for lights kept on inside the House and Senate chambers for
extended sessions, including high-wattage lighting for the many cameras taping the
deliberations. That requires more energy and heats up the rooms pretty quickly.
But because of its solid masonry walls and lack of large glassy areas exposed to the sun,
the Capitol tends to cool itself naturally.
Chartkoff said, “In many ways it has its own climate. It keeps its humidity and comfort
level more than modern buildings, with such a thick skin.”
Another development that took time was getting the public to come to terms with reduced
lighting on the dome’s exterior. Two years ago, dome lighting was cut in half. People
complained at first, but Benkovsky said he rarely hears any comments now.
Dome lights are further dimmed at midnight, along with lights facing the statue of Civil
War Gov. Austin Blair on the front lawn. But four 500-watters still shine up, illuminating
To Chartkoff, dimming the dome isn’t about energy savings.
“It’s a symbolic thing to show that we understand and are conserving everything that we
can,” she said. “Dimming the lights on the dome at night doesn’t save us hardly
Meadows said it’s worth keeping the dome lit.
“I know it’s an expense, and we may get to the point where we have to pinch pennies so
badly that we’re back to oil lamps on the desks,” Meadows said. “But it’s a symbol that
no matter how tough the times are, as a people we still have this symbol of our statewide