They come in myriad shapes and sizes and materials. Four are skyscraper towers, 39 have domes (one of which has five), one (New Mexico’s) is round. The oldest (Maryland) dates from 1772, the newest (Florida) from 1977. Some are the original capitols; some are in their second or third version. Only 17 of them are in their state’s largest city. The shortest (New Mexico, again) rises a mere 35’; the tallest (Louisiana) soars to 450’. When you visit the state capitol buildings throughout the United States, you’ll be impressed by their architecture, their troves of art within, the well-maintained grounds surrounding them, and the historic events that have occurred there, from the Southern states’ vote to secede from the Union in 1860 in Alabama’s capitol to women first getting the right to vote in 1869 in the Wyoming capitol. These are my favorites.
After enjoying a wonderful lunch at Billy’s Restaurant in Lincoln, Nebraska, I walked along a few shady residential streets to the most beautiful state capitol in the United States. Like those in Florida, Louisiana, and North Dakota, Nebraska’s capitol is a single tower, rising from a broad base. Nicknamed “Tower on the Plains,” it can be seen from 20 miles away. Completed in 1932 and declared a National Historic Landmark in 1997, this Art Deco marvel just gets better and better, a masterpiece that was paid in full during the height of the Great Depression, at a cost of $9.8 million. Sculptures of everything from Abraham Lincoln to Moses, from Nebraskan Native American tribes to wagon trains to the signing of the Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence, and Kansas-Nebraska Act decorate the limestone exterior. A dome covered with the original clay ceramic tiles coated with 20-carat, gold-painted glaze tops the 400’-tall tower. Blue and gold thunderbirds symbolically lift the dome, which is capped by a 19’-tall, nine-ton statue, The Sower — a man sowing seeds of grain by hand, standing atop a pedestal or corn and wheat.
Inside, I decided to take the wonderfully informative tour of this fabulous building. Amid the soaring arches, Art Deco chandeliers, busts of notable Nebraskans, and three large murals, added in 1956, that depict labor of the hand, the head, and the heart, my guide confirmed my suspicions: Due to a deplorable lack of skill, imagination, and talent, architects and engineers simply could not build this structure today — an assertion verified by the very architects and engineers who take this same tour. One of the world’s top 10 doors marks the entrance to the Warner Chamber. The sculpted and colorfully painted doors feature a male and a female Native American facing each other, with two corn-cob door handles and the lock in the center of a sunflower. Another chamber boasts marble columns of various colors that signify different races who have settled in Nebraska, and a ceiling with details that represent the state’s Spanish and French history. Throughout, cattle heads, birds, and corn stalks grace the marble rails. Accents of corn husks and sunflowers, and representations of the three branches of government, adorn the acoustically perfect Supreme Court. Perhaps the most striking feature is the glistening white and black marble mosaic floors with images of Mother Earth, the four elements, and prehistoric mammals, crustaceans, insects, and birds from the state’s past. On the 14th floor, the Memorial Chamber is dedicated to “the forms of heroism called for in the public service and in devotion to humanity” — a notion depicted in eight murals, split between four military themes and four civic themes, with a quote from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address running beneath them. The dome above the black marble walls is painted to represent the evening sky, with the chandelier standing in for a star. The chamber grants access to the observation deck, where I was rewarded with views of the city and beyond. Here, I reflected on the deep thoughtfulness and brilliantly executed artistry that was devoted to this building and that clearly makes the tallest building in Lincoln the most beautiful U.S. capitol.
While I was staying in Omaha, Nebraska, I rose early to take a two-hour drive into Des Moines, Iowa. I headed straight to the gorgeous Iowa State Capitol, one of the most beautiful buildings in Des Moines. I circumnavigated this magnificent structure first, enjoying the expansive grounds around it that include benches, lawns, trees, wide staircases, a statue of Abraham Lincoln and his son Tad, a fountain, a buffalo head waterspout, and a great view of the city. Completed in 1886 and dominated by the 23-carat gold-leaf–covered central dome, 275’ above the ground, the building features an additional dome atop each of the four corner towers and a façade of limestone, granite, and sandstone. As soon as I entered, I began to meet some very friendly Iowans, starting with the two security guards with whom I engaged in a 10-minute conversation. I made my way up to the first floor and released my first “Wow!” — an exclamation I would repeat countless times over the course of my visit.
The interior is furnished with 29 types of marble. A golden glow seemed to bathe everything in the capitol: the massive mural Westward, the colorful tile floor, the glass tile mosaics symbolizing charity and the three government branches, the stained-glass ceiling panels, and the painting of an overflowing basket of corn titled Plenty, the centerpiece of the Iowa Exhibit at the Pan-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. Stepping directly under the massive rotunda, I spied the eight lunette paintings depicting the “Progress of Civilization”; the dozen statues representing such fields as commerce, history, law, literature, and peace; and the emblem of the Grand Army of the Republic suspended across the dome. Marble newels adorned with festoons teeming with birds, butterflies, acorns, fruits, vegetables, and flowers anchor the beautiful Grand Stairway. The secretary in the Governor’s Reception Room stopped her work to show me around; another staff member in the Secretary of State’s office did the same, highlighting the original Iowa Constitution, signed in 1857. The chambers of the House of Representatives and the Senate were equally impressive, with their columns, chandeliers, and viewing galleries. I finished my exploration in one of the capitol’s finest sections: the astoundingly beautiful five-story Law Library, with circular staircases of frilly iron grillwork, stained-glass skylights, and more than 100,000 books.
I arrived in Madison at night, with the illuminated dome and drum of the magnificent Wisconsin State Capitol shining like a beacon before me. I settled in at the Mendota Lake House B&B, a Prairie-style home built in 1911 on the shore of Lake Mendota. After a good night’s rest and wonderful breakfast the next day, I made my first call of the day at the capitol. Erected from 1906 to 1917, the building cost $7.25 million — money well spent. At just three feet shorter than the dome of the national capitol in Washington, D.C. (a concession made during construction), Wisconsin’s dome was vindicated by the fact that it is larger by volume. Measured as such, it’s one of the largest and most beautiful domes in the world; it’s also the only granite dome on a U.S. capitol. At the end of each of the four wings of the building, Corinthian columns support a pediment with a tympanum filled with bas-reliefs that represent the branch of government housed in that particular wing. More than 40 kinds of stone embellish the interior, originating from places as close as Wisconsin and Minnesota and as far away as Algeria, Greece, Italy, and Norway. Stained glass and wonderful wall and ceiling murals abound, including The Marriage of the Atlantic and Pacific that commemorates the opening of the Panama Canal. Precious marble inlay surrounds the rotunda, and the floor of the Governor’s Conference Room was laid with seven different woods and not a single nail. A 34’-diameter mural, Resources of Wisconsin, spans the apex of the interior dome. And below, in the pendentives, four brilliant mosaics of 400,000 pieces of colored glass, each about the size of a quarter, depict Liberty and the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of the government — one of the capitol’s most striking splashes of color.
#4 New York
Architecturally unlike any other state capitol in the United States, the New York State Capitol in Albany is one of the country’s finest. Because it took so long to build (1867 to 1899, when it was dedicated by Governor Theodore Roosevelt), it’s a mix of architectural styles that somehow blend seamlessly and that is generally referred to as Romanesque Revival and Neo-Renaissance. Built for a whopping cost that exceeded $25 million (more than the U.S. capitol), the five-story granite building is simply superior. It features a central section with two connecting sections that link to corner towers with pyramidal red roofs, best viewed from the center of Empire State Plaza before it. Overall, it could be mistaken for an enormous French chateau, with its dormer windows and clusters of chimneys.
Inside, the surprisingly dark interior was a little disorienting; there’s certainly no grand open space or clearly articulated or instinctive routes to follow, as in many other capitols. Instead, I got to discover lots of wonderful treats along the byzantine layout, survivors of the 1911 fire that consumed a large part of the building as well as what was, at the time, the nation’s fifth-largest and the world’s 12th-largest library. Three grand staircases beckon you to start climbing: the Moorish- and Gothic-style Assembly Staircase, with a huge skylight; the other Moorish- and Gothic-style Senate Staircase, made of Scottish sandstone, with a glassless rose window in the most unexpected place, and bas-relief carvings of plants, fish, turtles, and mythical animals, and granite owls carved into a column capital; and the most elaborate, the four-pronged Great Western Staircase, designed by the incomparable Henry Hobson Richardson. Made of warm-rose–colored stone and brimming with ornate lampposts (this was one of the first public buildings in the United States to employ electricity), this staircase features fantastic hand-carved sculptures of 77 governors, presidents, explorers, poets, and soldiers, including Civil War heroes Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, all found hidden among column capitals, along the walls, and at the bases of arches, along with additional unidentified faces (probably friends of the carvers) used to fill in the ornamentation, no pattern of which is repeated. Countless arches and windows line each floor, and you’ll enjoy hunting for some fine details like an eagle and the New York State coat of arms. The Senate Lobby has a beautiful Victorian-tile floor; the Minton tile floor in the Upper Senate Corridor is just as nice. There’s also an impressive Moorish-Gothic–style Assembly Chamber, the largest room in the building, with stained glass, and brass and alabaster chandeliers, and the Governor’s Reception Room, with fantastic murals on the curved ceiling depicting important events in New York State military history, such as the battle between English and Dutch colonists fighting for control of the region. As if this capitol wasn’t already unique, there’s a Dunkin’ Donuts located inside.
From my hotel in Topeka, the new and stylish Cyrus Hotel, I walked a block and half to the 306’-tall Kansas State Capitol, a large and striking structure that remains the tallest building in the city. This domed cruciform capitol was completed in 1903; a 13-year renovation project, completed in 2014, has restored its pristine condition. Eight Corinthian columns support a plain pediment on each of the four sides. The second-highest dome among U.S. capitols (only Illinois’ is taller) rises 17’ taller than that of the U.S. Capitol. It’s topped by Ad Astra, a 22’ bronze sculpture of a Native American shooting an arrow toward the North Star that weighs 4,420 lbs and was added only in 1998. Inside, I followed the self-guided tour to see the antique operator-run elevator, the painted stenciling on the walls, the abundant and lovely use of copper in the rotunda and staircases, murals both allegorical and historical (such as The Coming of the Railroad, Building a Sod House, and Tragic Prelude, with a tornado and fires approaching the zealot John Brown, armed with a Bible and a rifle), the Senate Chamber with the original desks from 1885, and a two-story library with coffered ceilings, sunflowers (the state flower) in the bronze railings, a copy of The Wizard of Oz, and a glass floor between the two levels to allow more light into the lower section. I joined a guide and one other visitor for the dome tour. The 296 steps to the exterior balcony of the dome first brought me up to the interior of the inner dome to see artistic evidence that the United States has always been divided and government is forever wasting money: In 1898, the Populist Party approved the painting of half-naked Grecian women in a panel encircling the dome, with their lower halves obscured by flowers; once in power, however, the opposing Republican Party, which had objected to the topless ladies as too immodest, pointlessly replaced them with four allegorical murals of (fully clothed) women representing Knowledge, Peace, Plenty, and Power. At this level, I was also able to see the graffiti on the back of the columns from the years when people could access this space unaccompanied and that was retained post-renovation to emphasize the difference that project made. We continued up to the inside of the outer dome and its fascinating construction. From there, the staircase cantilevers out into the void and then goes directly up into a spiral staircase to the outdoor balcony. You’ll have to combat your acrophobia in order to complete this final part of the climb, but, once outside, you’ll be rewarded with the best view of all of Topeka and beyond.