Capitol Ideas

California capitol

The California Capitol; photo: Jeff Turner, creative commons license

Two years ago a visit to the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield revealed such a feast of 19th c. stenciled decor, state capitols have been added to my must-see list. Let me guess: you haven’t seen the capitol in your state since junior high. (Visiting school groups is a good reason to plan your visit for the summer or off-hours.)

Capitol buildings generally offer tours, or you may be able to roam freely, helpful brochure in hand. The legislature may or may not be in session. Either way, those chambers and the building as a whole are likely rich with history, symbols of the state, statues, portraits, and murals, as well as sheer decoration and impressive domes. Tour guides are especially interested in telling you how much things weigh.

The California Capitol

The capitol building in Sacramento (completed 1874) was a little hard to get into in June, with construction on the grounds and some entrances closed for security reasons. The south entrance, facing N Street, is open. The building is set in a forty-acre park that contains a lovely rose garden and memorials. The Vietnam War memorial was especially moving, as were the tributes to fallen firefighters and peace officers. Inside is a small museum, with permanent historical exhibits and a feature gallery.

The House and Senate chambers were beautiful—perhaps the hope is that surrounding legislators with elegance will lead to lofty thoughts—the House mainly green (for California) and the Senate mainly red (patterned on London’s Houses of Parliament), or so the guide said. It was fun reviewing the portraits of California governors that line the hallways to see whether I could recognize any of them. I did identify Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In the basement, where the tour starts, are murals painted in a particular dark style called “California decorative” that is repeated in some works at the nearby Crocker Art Museum.

The Pennsylvania Capitol

Harrisburg is such a down-at-heels city, this seems like a dubious destination, but the capitol is beautiful. When President Teddy Roosevelt dedicated it in 1906, he called it “the handsomest building I ever saw.” White marble and gold leaf are everywhere in the lobby (lobbyists, too), and the floor comprises Pennsylvania-made Moravian tiles interspersed with mosaics symbolizing animals, industries, occupations, and historical features of the Commonwealth.

Pennsylvania Capitol Dome - Harvey Barrison

Pennsylvania Capitol Dome; photo: Harvey Barrison, creative commons license

Looking up, you can see the 272-foot, 52 million pound dome, reportedly inspired by the one in Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica, while the lobby’s grand staircase and three-tiered gallery were designed with the Paris Opera House in mind.

William Penn was a Quaker and a highly religious man, and biblical quotations abound in the capitol’s décor and in the rich symbolism of the many works of art (another attempt at fostering high-mindedness, perhaps). Many of the murals, including those in the Supreme Court, were painted by Philadelphia artist Violet Oakley. Oakley was the first woman artist to receive such a commissions, which began when she was only 28 years old. Over a period of 25 years, she painted 43 murals for the capitol.

Books to throw in your suitcase

For Sacramento:

  • The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston – an award-winning memoir about Chinese immigrants in California (and so much more) – this one I’ve read and highly recommend, even though it takes place in Stockton, not Sacramento
  • Locke 1928 by Shawna Yang Ryan – if you are particular as to place, this is the story of the tiny town of Locke, a few miles outside Sacramento, which was a hotbed of vice
  • The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler – hey, you’re on vacation

And Harrisburg:

  • Visit The Midtown Scholar independent bookstore
  • Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley – classic reminder of life before women’s lib, set in Philadelphia
  • Plain Missing (An Amish Mystery) by Emma Miller – the writing of mystery and romance novels set in central Pennsylvania’s Amish country has become a cottage industry

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