Plain Kansas: Rosanna in the Rotunda

Plain Kansas: Rosanna in the Rotunda, 9.5 out of 10 based on 11 ratings
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Well, guess what’s special about today? The 29th of January, as any good Sunflower State scholar will inform you, is the day that Kansas was admitted to the union of the United States. Since I never miss. a chance to extol the virtues and beauties of my home state, I am definitely going to take advantage of this opportunity.

I attended a farm conference the other week in Topeka, the capitol city.  My 13-year-old sister Joanna tagged along because one of the scheduled programs was a tour of the Capitol.  I suspect that a tour of any state’s capitol does not make the list for the top tourist  destinations, but my sister and I were quite excited about it. While we didn’t really care about the political aspects of the capitol, we were very interested in the historic building itself. It must first be stated that, as a result of having parents and grandparents who think that history is exciting, we siblings can’t help but be interested in it. While Joanna has never toured the capitol building, I have averaged a tour of the statehouse about once every five years. Now, please don’t draw any premature conclusions, just give me a chance to prove to you that this really was an intriguing day-trip. On this tour we discovered cryptic architecture, newly discovered gold glass: floors, and even a sad artist story.

THE  TRASH WAS GONE! Even though this wasn’t my first visit, I was excited because this time the renovations were complete. It is hard to remember a time when there was not construction happening at the capitol. Renovations started in 2002 and final renovations wrapped up in January 2014 with a price tag of $320 million! I was Interested in seeing just what all those millions had accomplished. While the statehouse has undergone face-lifts in the past hundred years,no one had gotten down and fixed the real problems. The basement that was filled with coal ash has been cleaned out and now hosts an attractive café and visitor’s center. In a large part, the work and expense was simply peeling off layer after layer of smoke-stained white paint to reveal the original designs. Thankfully, smoking inside the capitol is no longer permitted, but for a hundred years the hallways were filled with a smoky haze. This resulting soot obscured all of the original decor the capitol sported. A year ago I got to visit the capitol building in Washington DC. I have to say that although this nation’s capitol is a sight worth seeing I believe that the statehouse interior in Kansas packs more of a “wow” factor. Of course, the rotunda isn’t nearly as massive, but what is impressed on you at every turn in the Kansas capitol is not so much the architecture, but the decor.

UNCOVERED GOLD! You have to remember that this building’s interior was finished in the “Gilded Age”. Everywhere you glance in the freshly renovated building the gleam of polished metal or the glitter of metallic paint leaps out at you. The trim work in the Senate chamber was actually painted with. 24 carat gold. And this is what they covered up with white paint! They also painted over the pink faux marble pillars in the House chamber. In the 1800’s pink was a masculine color, so the House of Representatives used that color heavily. Today, those pink faux marble pillars are more valuable than if they’d been solid marble, because the antique process to produce them is a lost art. For some reason, the decorators had a special fondness for copper. Not on!y is the dome clad in copper, but the pillars in the Senate chamber are copper, as well as light fixtures and stair spindles.                                         

CRYPTIC ARCHITECTURE! The attention to detail is intriguing. Kansas is the thirty- third state; and you will find 33 stars etched on the lamp globes, cast into the heater grates, and in many other surprising places.. Other symbols of Kansas are cast into the stair posts and hidden in the paint decorations.

 A GLASS FLOOR! Surprisingly, the Library is one of the most fascinating rooms in the building! Apparently, the state librarian back then was quite persuasive. She refused to “waste space” with two floors of bookcases. Instead, she figured she could fit in 10% more books if the bookshelves continued right up through the floors. And speaking of floors, those pine hardwood floors would not provide proper support, so we must have something better- like a glass floor! This seemed like the long way around to get what the librarian probably only wanted in the first place- a dumbwaiter to haul those books up to the second story. Walking on a glass floor is a little awkward, even though you know it is stout, there that psychological thing about a glass floor that you cant ignore. It’s also a clever way to induce folks to tiptoe in the library.                                              .

A SAD ARTISTS STORY! One of my favorite spots in the capitol is the halls where John Stuart Curry painted his murals He first painted a hail with Bleeding Kansas historical figures, of which the centerpiece is that famous portrait of a larger- than-life wild eyed and wild bearded John Brown. After receiving much criticism for this mural, he moved across and painted the other hall with more the tranquil scenes of agriculture and open plains. And still his beautiful work was mercilessly critiqued. Finally, John Stuart Curry became fed up with it all. He did not paint any more murals in the statehouse,but before he left, he added near the bottom of the prairie mural three skunks bearing the names of his chief criticizers. An artist doesn’t care about having the last word so mucih as the last paintbrush.

Bumping into famous people always makes a tour more interesting, so it was a bonus to see the Governor. Sam Brownback was born in our hometown, and our family has had business dealings with the Brownback family over the years, so we exchanged a few words about our common ground before we rushed back to join our group  I had just enough time to snap a photo so that Joanna had proof of the encounter for her classmates. Since it was the weekend our guide let Joanna sit in the judge’s chair in the Supreme Courtroom. She tried her best to look like a serious judge, but the effect was last because the large chair nearly swallowed her. Standing at the back of the courtroom, you wouldn’t be able to tell anyone was sitting in that massive chair!

I don’t know if other states have capitol buildings that are just  as colorful and storied as the one in Kansas, but I suggest you find out. If your home state’s capitol is boring, you’ll have to stop by Topeka and visit ours. You won’t be disappointed!

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The Discussion

  1. Loved this! Rosanna does a beautiful job describing the capitol in Kansas. You can tell she is very enthusiastic about her subject. I have visited our state capitol (Ohio) and I don’t know that I could give you any history – I’d have to look it up!
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  2. Another interesting story.

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