The North Capitol Building taking shape on Utah’s Capitol Hill draws on a historic site plan and will provide a place to honor and learn about the state’s past.

First envisioned as replacement office space for state workers, plans for the North Capitol Building changed when those workers were permanently moved to new offices away from the Capitol.

At the urging of state lawmakers to create something significant on the site, members of the Capitol Preservation board turned to previous master plans, including the original site plan drawn up in 1911 by renowned landscape architect John Charles Olmstead.

State lawmakers and the governor felt there was an opportunity to complete the vision of the older plans that included a north building and plaza. State preservationists and leaders saw an opportunity to build a new “front door” to welcome the public to the Capitol complex and to create an educational space dedicated to Utah’s history.

The $250-million North Capitol Building will include the Museum of Utah, a public showcase of the state’s history, space for the permanent and safe storage of the state’s collection of historic artifacts, office and meeting space, two new public plazas and the replacement of an underground parking garage.

“This is one of the most complex buildings I’ve ever been involved with,” says design architect Nathan Leavitt, a principal with Salt Lake City-based VCBO Architecture.

The 160,000-sq-ft., four-story structure is designed in the same neoclassical style as the two legislative office buildings completed in 2000 and the historic Capitol building completed in 1916.

According to Leavitt and Karen Ferguson, associate principal at VCBO who has been involved with projects at the Capitol for more than 20 years, challenges with the project have ranged from finding the right stone to determining the appropriate structural design, accommodating the unique needs of archivists from the Utah Division of State History and managing a significant change in scope handed to the team after construction had begun.

plaza and aging parking garage

Sitework was underway when the demolition and replacement of the plaza and aging parking garage were added to the scope of the North Capitol Building project.
Image courtesy MGB+A Studio

A Late Addition

Salt Lake City-based Okland Construction was awarded the CMGC contract for the project in September of 2021 and work got underway in early 2022 with the demolition of a 1960s era office building on the site. A below-grade parking garage topped with a plaza occupies the center of the Capitol complex, directly south of the North Capitol Building site. Mike Jueschke, senior project manager for Okland, says the building team had planned to move lifts onto the plaza for construction of the south facade. However, structural damage discovered while the team was investigating shoring options in the garage to accommodate the weight of the lifts and material upended that plan.

“We wanted this to fit in with what is going on with the Capitol design but be just a step down so it doesn't mimic or interfere with it. We want this to look like it’s been here 100 years too.”
—Nathan Leavitt, Design Architect and Principal, VCBO Architecture

“We’d had water infiltration from the plaza. Also, that garage was built back in the 1960s, and we knew something was going to have to be done with it eventually. We looked at repairs but that would only get us 10 or 20 more years,” says Michael Ambre, the interim director for Utah’s Division of Facilities and Construction Management and part of the North Capitol project team. “We also realized that with the North Capitol Building going up, we would be landlocked so to speak, and if we wanted to replace the garage in the future our access would be really restricted.”

Ambre says he presented options for the garage to state legislators who ultimately added funding for the replacement of the garage and central plaza.

“It totally changed our strategy for building the south facade. Now we have a concurrent critical path with the garage, and we are sequencing construction so there are times we can get the lifts in and do the work on that south side,” Jueschke explains.

parking garage

A new central plaza on top of the parking garage will feature more green space and better drainage than its predecessor.
Image courtesy VCBO

Classic Details, Seismic Safety

Designed by architect Richard Kletting, the Utah State Capitol building took design cues from the U.S. Capitol and is set on a plinth, with Corinthian columns and atria extending east and west from a central dome.

As they have in past projects at the Utah State Capitol, Ferguson says VCBO consulted with the firm of Schooley Caldwell of Columbus, Ohio, and their specialists in historic and classical architecture to refine details of the new building.

“For example, the Capitol has Corinthian columns on the east and west wings, but we have Doric columns on the building and Tuscan order columns for the separate belvedere structure on the north plaza” Leavitt says. “We wanted this to fit in with what is going on with the Capitol design but be just a step down so it doesn’t mimic or interfere with it. We want this to look like it’s been here 100 years too.”

“There is no UV light, it is insulated by the earth and the seismic protection is unmatched.”
—Heber Slabbert, Principal, AJC Architects, Archive Storage Design

The first two floors of the new facility will be dedicated to state history, displaying artifacts from the collection housed in the building’s basement. There will also be a theater and meeting rooms and spaces for the study of historic material. The remaining two floors will be offices for state employees. An atrium space extending from the floor to the fourth level will be capped with a skylight of stained glass featuring images representing Utah’s different regions. The first and second floor are connected by a spiral staircase clad in marble, which will also be used for much of the flooring.

While the Georgia marble featured heavily on the interior of the Capitol is still available, the quarries in nearby Little Cottonwood Canyon that produced the granite used on the exterior of the Capitol shut down long ago.

Ferguson says the design team began searching quarries around the world for a suitable match, and one was eventually found in Sardinia. The finished stones will be shipped to Utah and fitted to metal frames that will be attached to points on the supporting structure.

Just what that structure would be was another early change on the project. Initial designs called for a steel frame building, but an effort to better match the design of the original Capitol building coupled with major fluctuations in steel pricing moved the team in the direction of post-tensioned concrete. The change resulted in several benefits, says lead structural engineer Jerod Johnson, principal with Salt Lake City-based Reaveley Engineers.

“Post-tensioned concrete gave us the floor to ceiling height and column placement we needed. It was more friendly to the museum layout too,” he says. “It gave us floor thickness of eight inches in most places. The architectural team liked that because there was more space in the soffit to accommodate the mechanical system and it just became a very good fit for this job.”

The Wasatch Fault runs just east of Salt Lake City, and earthquakes in the region are not uncommon. As part of an extensive renovation and restoration of the Capitol in 2004, the entire building was placed on new concrete footings and 256 base isolators. The team opted for a similar base isolation system for the North Capitol Building. Eighty-nine base isolators were placed under the foundation slab and, like the Capitol, a “moat” surrounds the building allowing it to shift up to 24 in. in any direction, Johnson says.

“We also have some 25-foot by 25-foot core walls that are 20 inches thick that run the full height of the building. That vertical stiffness complements the base isolation system.”

The base isolation system also helped solve an issue with the building’s stone cladding.

“Before we decided on the base isolation system, we were trying to engineer these big pieces of stone with joints that could accommodate significant movement, and they were getting very obtrusive and large [up to 2.5 inches], and it was just a mess aesthetically,” Leavitt says. “The base isolation system reduced the amount of movement we had to deal with. It not only made it safer for the state archives and people, but it simplified the stone detailing and gave us a much better looking building.”

Okland’s concrete team

Okland’s concrete team created forms to shape the staircase connecting the first and second floors. It will be finished with marble.
Image courtesy of VCBO

History Saving

Creating a safe place for the artifacts that help tell Utah’s story had long been on the mind of historians with the Utah Division of State History and architect Heber Slabbert, principal at Salt Lake City-based AJC Architects, who had been working on designs for a new stand-alone facility since 2018.

The historical material was being stored in the basement of the Rio Grande Train Depot in downtown Salt Lake City, a space that had broken pipes and that was too hot for ideal storage. Requests for a more suitable location for the collection grew louder when a 5.7 earthquake in 2020 damaged the historic train depot and led to its closure to the public.

“We had been working with some specialists to identify trends and facilities across the country [that were storing historic artifacts] well. We had come up with an impressive model of how to do things when the museum and the collection was added to the North State Capitol program,” he says. “There is no UV light, it is insulated by the earth and the seismic protection is unmatched.”

Slabbert says the greatest concern about the collection in the basement is water.

“We were able to encapsulate most of the plumbing and restrooms in concrete cores so if something overflowed the water would be channeled down the core,” he says. “On the main floor, we had no floor boxes and very minimal penetrations through the floor so if there were a flood there are very few paths to the basement. Lastly, the most sensitive objects are stored behind doors and gutters, so water is directed away from them.”

A highly sensitive smoke alarm system detects minute particles from combustion and will sound an alarm and activate fire sprinklers only in particular zones rather than across the entire facility.

The new plaza at the north end of the site will sit on top of two levels of below grade parking and feature a space for busses to drop off and pick up visitors.

The facility is scheduled to open in 2026.