Preserving Artistic and Historical Treasures
What makes the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building an architectural masterpiece?
You need to schedule a tour of Harrisburg and while you’re in town, 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.
Until my recent Harrisburg travel assignment, I only recall seeing this stately icon from a distance. That’s nothing to brag about considering I’m a life-long Pennsylvania resident. The day I visited couldn’t have been more beautiful as the sunbeam illuminated the dome.
As the traffic whizzed by me on one of Harrisburg’s busiest streets, I took a moment to admire the dome from the sidewalk in front of the complex before I made the climb up the exterior stairs to the entrance. I also realized I had no idea what entrance to use.
While rushing up and down two flights of exterior steps not once but twice on my way to my private tour appointment, I checked my watch and realized I was five minutes late before I entered the building. Blame it on the sprawling complex and multiple sets of doors that confused me.
Fortunately, a bystander pointed me in the right direction in the vicinity of the main entrance and a security guard mapped out my trek to the information desk in the lobby. Minutes later I met my guide who was surrounded by several large groups of visitors who were ready to embark on their tours.
Travel assignments offer many perks and Rick Dunlap, of the Visit Hershey and Harrisburg office, Harrisburg’s official tourism board, 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 tours are so organized and effortless.
While Harrisburg has remained Pennsylvania’s capital since October 1812, my tour guide, Jill Fetter is a storyteller who in a comparatively short time, learned the full history and stories to keep you entertained throughout your tour. She knows the building inside and out. Jill is 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.
As we strolled through the first area, she began by pointing out many of the materials used throughout the complex. In case you didn’t know, 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.
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.
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.
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.
There’s so much to see and take in at the State Capitol Building. Before you go, download the PA Capitol Self-Guided Tour Mobile app to learn about the self-guided tour stops and how a bill becomes law in PA. You’ll find 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.
Fill your head with Pennsylvania history and 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.
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.
Looking for more Harrisburg articles, check out https://joanmatsuitravelwriter.com/wildwood-park-nature-abounds.
Planning content after a media trip can be daunting but you can simplify your life with the Content Creators Planner, a tool I use to organize my life.