In this election year, let’s take a moment to focus on the nice, friendly, happy part of government – visiting state capitol buildings.
“We’re nonpartisan. We stay out of politics,” says Matthew VanAcker, director of the Michigan Capitol Tour and Information Service.
Instead, they focus on making tours fun. State capitol tours draw everyone from schoolchildren to families to seniors in giant cross-country RVs. Determined travelers even come alone from distant states and countries on a quest to see all 50 state capitol buildings.
“We once had a lady visit who said, ‘My husband died 16 capitols ago,’ ” VanAcker says. She was determined to complete the goal and arrived at the Michigan Capitol, her very last one.
What is the draw of visiting multiple state capitols? Similar to quests involving visiting every baseball park or national park, “It’s a hobby. It’s something they can say they did,” VanAcker says. “These folks collect capitols. And typically they are very knowledgeable about it.”
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Melissa and Dan Roman of Grosse Ile, Mich., are on a quest to see all 50 state capitols, taking their children Mark, 10, and Brooke, 8. So far they have made it to eight. Their goal is to see all 50 before Mark graduates from high school.
“We need to do about five (capitols) a year in the next eight years; some years we will do less and some we will do more,” Dan Roman says. “Next summer, we are going to rent an RV and go out West and do 12 state capitols at once.”
Of the capitol buildings they have already seen – Albany, N.Y.; Salt Lake City, Utah; Montpelier, Vt.; Austin, Texas; Topeka, Kan.; Columbus, Ohio; Denver, and Indianapolis – Dan’s favorite is Kansas, and Melissa’s favorite is Vermont.
They haven’t visited Michigan’s capitol yet.
SAVED BY HISTORIANS
The Michigan Capitol is open every weekday for free guided and self-guided tours. The legislature typically is in session Tuesdays through Thursdays; on Mondays and Fridays the place is quiet.
Elijah Myers designed the building, which opened in 1879. He then went on to design the remarkably similar state capitols of Texas and Colorado.
“He helped establish the idea in America about what a state capitol is supposed to look like,” says VanAcker. Now, “when you drive through a capital city, you look for the big, white pointy building.”
The Michigan Capitol was in such bad shape that by the 1970s there was talk of tearing it down and replacing it with something modern. They had a couple different designs, one even a strange inverted pyramid.
Luckily for traditionalists, the building was instead refurbished between 1989 and 1992. Now it glows with gravitas – heavy furniture, elaborate murals, important-looking paintings and chandeliers. You can tour the rotunda, state house, state senate, ceremonial governor’s office and the old Michigan Supreme Court courtroom.
VanAcker also recommends that when children and adults visit that they lie down on the floor of the rotunda and look up. That is something definitely not allowed at the U.S. Capitol or Sistine Chapel. But he believes it gives tourists a better view of how lovely the building is.
A couple of times, third-grade students have even fallen asleep there. It turns out that in the house of the people, some visitors actually make themselves at home.
That is OK with VanAcker: “It’s a different perspective. It releases you.”
OTHER COOL CAPITOLS
The Michigan Capitol is most notable for its 976-piece glass floor in the rotunda and its ornate, slim vertical dome, but there are many other wondrous, strange and downright weird capitols out there. One – Wisconsin – even has a member of the weasel family carved into the decorations (OK, it’s a kind of cute badger).
Jim Stembridge, author of “Fifty State Capitols: the Architecture of Representative Government” (www.fiftystatecapitols.com, $27.50), has been to all capitols at least once and says he loves at least 35 of them. For the Salem, Ore., author, promoting them is not only an author’s duty, it is a calling.
“I see my purpose as helping people see the treasures they have in all 50 state capitols,” he says, “and maybe help people appreciate the good governing that goes on in the buildings.”
Which is one message we desperately need to hear in a bitter election year.
SEVEN NOTABLE CAPITOLS
It’s all in the eye of the beholder, but here are a few of the most interesting state capitol buildings:
Harrisburg, Pa.: Ranked by the Smithsonian as the most beautiful state capitol building in the U.S. www.pacapitol.com/tours.html.
Salem, Ore.: Interesting example of Art Deco architecture, built in 1938 after previous two state capitol buildings burned down. www.oregonlegislature.gov/capitolhistorygateway/Pages/Tours.aspx
Sante Fe, N.M.: The only round state capitol, thus the nickname The Roundhouse. It also has a great collection of art by New Mexico artists, started in 1992. www.nmlegis.gov/lcs/lcsdocs/BrochureEnglish.pdf
Denver, Colo.: It’s almost a twin of the Michigan State Capitol – and designed by the same guy. Bonus: You can climb 99 steps to the top of the dome. www.colorado.gov/pacific/cga-legislativecouncil/tours-0
Juneau, Alaska: The most modest of all state capitols, it’s the only one not reachable by road (get to Juneau by plane or boat). It’s being renovated until 2017, but you can still visit the lobby. http://w3.legis.state.ak.us/pages/capitol.php
Madison, Wis.: From above, the building is shaped like a cross, It is the only capitol building with a weasel carved into its decorations – the badger. http://tours.wisconsin.gov/
Lincoln, Neb.: The “tower on the plains” capitol building from the 1920s is not elegant, but it is impressive. http://capitol.nebraska.gov/visit
See photos of every state capitol building at www.capitolshots.com.
How to get a state capitol “passport” collector’s book:
You can order the book, then have it stamped at every capitol building you visit (Michigan’s stamp has a wolverine on it). Order from the Capitol Collection in Denver, www.thecapitolcollection.com, 303-564-7570 ($15).
STATE CAPITOL VISITOR TIPS
Jim Stembridge, author of “Fifty State Capitols,” has been to all of them at least once. Here is his eight-step method:
▪ Arrive at 7 a.m. to get a good free parking spot not too far from the capitol.
▪ Stroll around outside as the sun comes up, with good photo ops.
▪ Head inside to see whether there is a coffee shop or restaurant (many have them, with “surprisingly inexpensive meals”).
▪ Listen for lobbyists and members of the legislature discussing the issues of the day.
▪ Wander the halls and find out whether and when tours are scheduled.
▪ Take a tour.
▪ See if you can briefly observe a committee meeting or chamber session, a news conference or bill-signing ceremony.
▪ Visit the gift shop for souvenirs, if the capitol has one (about half of them do, but not Michigan).