The Lead

Oft malfunctioning and maligned Pennsylvania Capitol escalators set to be replaced in East Wing renovation

By: - January 10, 2024 4:16 pm

An architectural rendering of the Pennsylvania Capitol’s East Wing rotunda after planned renovations to replace its unreliable escalators with a large-group elevator and a grand staircase. (Pennsylvania Department of General Services)

In the words of the late comedian Mitch Hedberg, an escalator can never break; it can only become stairs.

But in the Pennsylvania Capitol, frequent breakdowns of the escalators linking the building’s main floor with its East Wing have proven inconvenient and costly.

For longtime Capitol denizens, finding one or both of the escalators immobile behind a yellow barricade is a running joke. The moving staircases have even taken on a puckish personality, clapping back at lawmakers and journalists on the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

The state Department of General Services, which manages the Capitol Complex, announced on Wednesday that the days are numbered for the herky-jerky and often idle East Wing escalators.

Over the next 18 months, DGS plans an overhaul of the East Wing rotunda to replace its large spiral staircase with a 20-person elevator and demolish the escalators to make way for a grand staircase.

The project, slated to cost between $3 million and $4 million, will save the state money in the long run, improve the flow of Capitol workers and visitors and provide a safer, more reliable evacuation route in an emergency, DGS secretary Reggie McNeil said in a statement.

“Over the years, the escalators have been plagued by frequent failures, requiring significant maintenance and down time and costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in repair costs,” McNeil said. DGS has spent nearly $250,000 to maintain the escalators over the last five years.

Envisioned as a later addition when the Capitol opened in 1906, the 400,000-square-foot East Wing was finished in 1987. It added nearly 100 legislative offices, hearing rooms, a cafeteria and the Capitol welcome center and gift shop.

The East Wing rotunda, where the current spiral staircase and escalators are, is frequently used for news conferences, rallies, performances and displays. It is among the busiest spaces in the Capitol Complex.

The renovations will also include upgrades to the cafeteria, including the replacement of existing acoustical ceiling tiles and lighting fixtures with flat-panel LED fixtures, improvements to the ventilation and replacement of kitchen exhaust ductwork.

Original neon lighting in the rotunda, which does not work, will be replaced with modern LED lighting that is more efficient and will provide the ability to change the color of lighting for special events.

Demolition of the spiral staircase and installation of the new elevator is scheduled between July and February 2025. Demolition of the escalators and installation of the new grand staircase will take place between March and August 2025, DGS said.

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Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.