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Artistic Treasure: PA State Capitol Complex

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  • December 3, 2018
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Rotunda Exterior Image PA State Capitol Complex
The Pennsylvania State Capitol Building complex, Harrisburg, PA Photo courtesy of Visit Hershey-Harrisburg

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building

An Architectural Masterpiece

Plan a visit to Harrisburg and add this National Historic Landmark to your itinerary.

Imagine you’re standing in front of the Pennsylvania State Capitol building around the time of its dedication on Oct. 4, 1906. Close your eyes and envision you’re looking skyward at what was considered to be the tallest structure between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The capitol building held that record for 80 years. That must have been quite a sight to behold.

As a life-long Pennsylvania resident, I’m sorry to note I had only seen my state’s capitol building from a distance until earlier this year on a sunny late September day. As the traffic whizzed by me, I took a moment to admire the dome from the sidewalk in front of the complex. I realized I had no idea what entrance to use. As I walked up and down two flights of exterior steps twice, I checked my watch and realized I was five minutes late for my scheduled tour. I stopped briefly to ask a bystander to point to the main entrance that would lead me to the main lobby and the man directed me to two sets of double doors. A security guard mapped out my trek to the lobby where I found the information desk surrounded by several large groups of visitors who were ready to embark on their tours. There, I met my tour guide.

Visit Hershey-Harrisburg arranged my tour as part of a three-day media trip to Hershey and Harrisburg. I left Central Pennsylvania with a significantly greater understanding of why Harrisburg has remained Pennsylvania’s capital since October 1812 thanks to my tour guide, Jill Fetter. She’s the Capitol Visitor Services director and The Pennsylvania Capitol Shop manager in the Main Rotunda and an expert in both the building’s history and design.

The 272-foot, 52 million-pound capitol dome glistens with Vermont granite and is topped with a green-glazed terra cotta tile roof and inspired by Michelangelo’s design for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Photo Courtesy of UncoveringPA.com

Philadelphia architect Joseph Huston (1866-1940), designed the massive capital structure based on his vision of a “Palace of Art” and that’s exactly what you’ll find. The building and furnishings cost $13 billion.

Aside from its obvious grandeur and size, the exterior of the building is a gateway to the splendor you’ll find inside – classic American Renaissance style architecture that’s combined with artistic details that are unspeakably magnificent and illuminated by approximately 4,000 lights and 48 portholes in the dome.

Suffice to say, the building lives up to its reputation as the most beautiful capitol building in our nation. In fact, history has it that President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed the capital as “the handsomest building” he ever saw when he attended the dedication of the building.

PA State Capitol Building Architecture Art
A visitor stops for a moment to gaze at the statues and ornamentation as he descended the grand staircase in the main building. Photo by Joan Mead-Matsui

The interior focal point is the grand staircase – an ideal vantage point for visitors to view eight large murals by Philadelphia artists, Edwin Austin Abbey, and the famous Barnard  Statues by George Grey Barnard, and 17-foot bronze doors that each weighs a ton. Keeping your eyes fixed on one element at a time might be difficult for even the most disciplined spectator as your tour guide describes each of the massive installations of stained glass, murals, and paintings crafted by the most talented artisans of that era.

Pennsylvania historical exhibits
Love art? The capitol building is as much a series of exhibits as it is a hub for lawmakers and lobbyists. Photo by Joan Mead-Matsui

Some of the largest rooms feature a European influence with distinctive Renaissance elements – Italian in the House Chamber, French in the Senate Chamber, and English in the Governor’s Reception Room. Add to that mix Greek, Roman and Victorian installations of exquisite art and ornamentation displayed throughout the building.

PA Senate and House Chambers Tours
When the legislature is not in session, you’ll have a chance to gaze at the murals, gold embellishments, custom-crafted lighting fixtures, and exquisite woodwork in the chambers. Photo by Joan Mead-Matsui
Pennsylvania State Capitol Complex Tours
What will you learn during a tour of the PA State Capitol Complex? This massive structure is an ideal opportunity for students of all ages to learn local, state, and national histories, law and politics, and art and architecture. Photo by Joan Mead-Matsui

Historians, politicians, teachers, students, architects, travelers, and anyone with an appreciation for history and art and a fascination with politics and lawmaking, should visit the Pennsylvania State Capitol complex. Architectural students will want to study how Huston, the architect-of-record, incorporated motifs that embody Pennsylvania’s achievements in history, animals, industries, occupations, and modes of transportation into his design. Whether your glance is towards the dome, straight ahead, or under your feet, you’ll find examples of Huston’s affinity for art. One example is the Moravian tiles you’ll see intermingled on the lobby floor. They were designed and manufactured by Henry Chapman Mercer of Doylestown, PA as a way to illustrate and incorporate the talents and wares of local craftsman.

Henry Chapman Mercer Moravian Tiles
As many as 400 tile mosaics by Henry Chapman Mercer, a Doylestown, PA craftsman, are interspersed throughout the first floor of the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building Rotunda and nearby corridors. Photo by Joan Mead-Matsui
William B. Van Ingen 24 Stained Glass windows
The “Militia” is one of 24 stained glass windows in the Senate and House Chambers crafted by Philadelphia native William B. Van Ingen. Photo by Joan Mead-Matsui

There’s so much to see and take in at the State Capitol Building.  Take the time to download the PA Capitol Self-Guided Tour Mobile app to learn about the self-guided tour stops, how a bill becomes law in PA, and research additional information in five languages: English, Spanish, French, Italian, and German.

Tours are free and offered every half hour Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. or on weekends and most holidays at 9 and 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. You won’t be able to tour the capitol building on New Year’s Day, Easter Sunday, Thanksgiving and Christmas day but you’ll have plenty of other options before or after those holidays. I encourage you to register for a tour so won’t miss a detail along the way. A Capitol Tour Guide will fill your head with architectural, artistic, and political highlights that will make this building’s incomparable beauty come alive for you. If you decide to wait to schedule your tour until you arrive in Harrisburg, be sure to check the schedule before arriving at the capitol complex.

PA State Capitol Complex Tour Guides
Allow Pennsylvania State Capitol Complex tour guides, Jill Fetter and her staff, to show you around one of Pennsylvania’s most extraordinary buildings.

For help planning your trip to Pennsylvania, visit www.VisitHersheyHarrisburg.org.

My trip was hosted and comped by Visit Hershey & Harrisburg but my opinions are my own and are based on my personal experiences. 

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