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Wednesday, July 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 60.0° F  Fair
The Daily


'One of the nicest Capitols in the country'
Madison museum moments

Credit:Kenneth Burns
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Let it be said: I've visited the Wisconsin Capitol building many times. Okay, "visited" is not the right word. I have walked through it many times. I work at the top of King Street, and at noontime I regularly make my way through the Capitol rotunda for lunch on State Street, at the opposite corner of Capitol Square. It is the greatest shortcut in all of downtown.

But I imagine the designers of the splendid building, completed in 1913, hoped visitors would see the old place as more than a shortcut. And so today in this, my eighth year in the capital city, I did my duty as a Wisconsinite and took the guided tour.

Tours begin at the information desk in the rotunda. Joining me on my walkabout were a handful of tourists who had wandered in -- and a group of about 30 schoolchildren. At 2 p.m., we gathered below the big dome and gave our attention to Jim, our teal-vested host. Or some of us did, anyway. As Jim began speaking, most of the kids were frantically taking pictures of the dome.

"Take all the pictures you want," Jim said. "We have no secrets here." Beside him a woman conveyed his presentation in sign language.The dome is, he noted, the fourth-largest of its kind in the world. It was one of many facts and superlatives (or, in that case, near-superlatives) that he dispensed. Did you know it is the only state Capitol dome covered with granite? Did you know 43 kinds of stone are used in Wisconsin's Capitol? Now you do.

It is a remarkable thing, that dome, lined as it is with murals and mosaics and granite balustrades. It is in the ancient classical mode of architecture, of course, as is the rest of the massive structure -- as is all of Washington, D.C., except for certain barbecue joints. I sometimes wonder what our nation's great government buildings would look like if the Founding Fathers had taken their cues not from Rome but instead from, say, Stonehenge.

Following Jim's instructions, we made our way up two flights of stairs to the Senate chamber. The schoolkids made a happy clomping sound with their feet as they scurried up the steps and snapped still more photographs. Finally, in the chamber, they settled into the comfortable upholstered chairs of the intimate, circular room, which has mauve carpeting and marble columns topped with gilt Corinthian capitals. There were antique wooden desks for the senators. Jim pointed out the mural looming over us: "The Marriage of Two Great Oceans," an allegorical tableau commemorating the completion of the Panama Canal.

One kid asked, "Do you have keys to open these desks?"

Replied Jim, "No. The senators keep their personal stuff in there."

Then Jim guided us back into the hall. We passed gum-cracking Capitol employees who studiously avoided eye contact, and we also passed the cluttered press room, where tired-looking reporters gazed at computer monitors.

We came to the Assembly room, which is much larger than the Senate chamber. The same mauve carpet is there, but the columns have Ionic capitals. As in the Senate chamber, the kids sat at the rows of Assembly members' desks. All of them immediately began fiddling with the microphone stands. As Jim described the massive mural Wisconsin and the electronic voting system, one of the children's chaperones whispered something about finding a bubbler.

"Are we going to get to vote?" one kid asked.

Another replied: "I vote aye -- for no school!"

After we left the Assembly chamber, Jim paused in the rotunda, where he reflected again on the size of the dome. "I could put more ice cream in that dome than the one in D.C.," he said. The children stared in response. Jim pointed out a replica of the Liberty Bell.

"Could you tell me about the cost of the building?" a woman asked.

"We'll talk about cost on the next stop," Jim said.

He guided us up a flight of stairs to the hearing room, but he invited everyone also to look closely just to the left of his shoe on the stair. What was there? A starfish-shaped fossil, forever embedded in the marble -- the grey Tennessee marble, he said, with specificity.

We walked into the hearing room, over the door of which is one of the Capitol's many likenesses of snarling badgers. Kids sat behind a long desk, looking for all the world like a row of miniature senators about to grill the attorney general. Here, Jim said, is where the people can talk to their lawmakers.

"And now," he said, "it's time for a history lesson."

"Awww!" came a chorus from the children. But it turned out to be an interesting story that answered that woman's earlier question: it cost $7,250,000, he said, to build this, "one of the nicest Capitols in the country."

But, Jim said, that would be $2 billion today. He emphasized the words heavily, which made several children whistle in awe.

Our tour nearly over, we walked to the Supreme Court room, which features coffered ceilings and a long table for the seven justices to sit behind. There also are four murals depicting the signing of the Magna Carta and other seminal events in the history of constitutional law.

During a brief question period, one lad said he had written a report on the Magna Carta.

That's great," said Jim, encouragingly.

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