Training camp for state Capitol tour guides is nearly finished — and with little time to spare.
A crush of visitors is expected when the building reopens early next month after a four-year, $310 million restoration. They'll be shown around by a mostly new crop of guides who have spent the past few weeks preparing customized routes, fun facts and tour themes.
"We don't have scripted tours. We don't give every interpreter 'Here is 10 pages you have to talk about,'" said Brian Pease, the Capitol site manager for the Minnesota Historical Society. "It really is an intensive training process because we're having them build their tours from the ground up."
That tour construction has been occurring as the actual construction winds down.
The guides have had to dodge ladders, shimmy around scaffolding, scoot past tape blocking off corridors and crowd into rooms where antique furniture is lined up before it can be moved to its permanent spot.
The soon-to-be blazer clad guides are intent on getting comfortable with the old and the new of the 112-year-old Minnesota Capitol, which reopens to the public on Jan. 3.
Only a couple of Pease's past guides are back after the inside-and-out restoration that halted tours for a year-and-a-half. That means about a dozen staff members will be new to the job.
"They're all skilled people. They'll be doing a good job," he said. "They'll be looking at how the building functions and putting all the art, the architecture and the government process all together as they prepare for their tours."
The team is a mix of fresh-out-of-college history majors, retired teachers, actors and government buffs.
They work for $13 an hour and have to be ready to tailor their tours to everyone from elementary school kids to visitors from abroad.
Each guide is responsible for developing a one-sentence objective and building a tour around that.
It can be a tribute to the vast artwork, an emphasis on government at work, a focus on patriotism or a hunt for the symbols scattered around the building.
Former guide David Sandager told the rookies he honed his objective to highlight the building as a showpiece of Minnesota.
"When you walked around the first floor of the Capitol, you might have seen all of the stars, or the stars in the Governors Reception Room, or the M's on the railing, or L'Etoile du Nord, or the Civil War generals and figures on the second floor all being Minnesota," he said. "So all these uniquely Minnesotan aspects to the Capitol were what I came to for my tour."
There's a lot to take in — from the gilded molding and grand chandeliers in the governor's office to the zodiac murals high inside the dome — which is the second-largest unsupported marble dome in the world.
And when the Capitol reopens, the public will have more room to roam.
The restoration opened up almost 40,000 square feet as public space. That includes new group gathering areas in the basement level and a hideaway lounging spot on the third floor. A grab-and-go lunch counter will provide an alternative to the often-crowded Rathskeller Cafe.
For the guides, capturing the old features are just as important as highlighting newer aspects. But there's a thin line between delivering a few memorable facts and stories and overloading visitors with mundane details.
To prepare, the guides-in-training have dissected literature about tours that have gone horribly wrong. They've also analyzed the attributes of old Big Mac containers as part of an exercise aimed at putting objects in historical context.
Kerry Foerster, who previously worked at radio stations and hospitals, took the training as a refresher. He's one of the returning guides.
"I've had a lot of jobs in my life. I'm a restless soul, and this has been my favorite," Foerster said. "So I'm really eager to get back."
He describes it as performance art, but with purpose.
"I love giving tours, especially to kids who when they first come into the building, they are awed by it. But then they see, 'He's our tour guide, there's this old guy, he can't be very fun.' And then I make them laugh or surprise them somehow," Foerster said. "And all the sudden their eyes go wide. Then they know they better pay attention or they're going to miss something. And I know I've got them!"
On some days in the spring, the team will be responsible for showing around 1,200 school children — 150 an hour — plus adult walk-ups.
General tours run about 45 minutes and start on the hour. They're free, but a $5 per person donation is encouraged.
Elizabeth Phyle is one of the new guides. The University of St. Thomas history graduate who spent her first two years out of college teaching English in Japan is anxious to get started.
"I was so excited that there was a job where I could geek out about history and government at the same time," she said, "in a place that was so historical but also had so much living history going on."
If you go
Guided tours at the Minnesota State Capitol When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays starting Jan. 3 Where: 75 Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr Blvd., St. Paul Cost: Free, $5 per person donation encouraged Additional info: Reservations are required for groups of 10 or more, and must be made two weeks in advance