© By Janet and Stuart Wilson
State capitols don't make many folks must-see list, but they certainly make ours. We like visiting them for the history, the art, the lessons in comparative state government, and of course, the architecture. The traditional masonry construction of most we've seen, and the national capitol for that matter, often yield beautiful forms, but not light, open, spacious interiors.
On a hill overlooking downtown Salt Lake City, and a little removed from it, Utah's capitol is a large, imposing example of neo-classical design resembling many other state capitols. But once we entered the building on the main (2nd) floor, we realized something was different: there was lots of natural light.
Utah State Capitol and our guide talks with students
A swarm of elementary school children clambering noisily up the steps gave us pause as we arrived at the capitol's east entrance for our scheduled tour. Our group, including eight foreign students from the University of Utah and their professor, joined us and our docent, Marilyn for our own educational and entertaining excursion.
Marilyn explained what was different about this capitol. In his 1912 design, Utah architect Richard Kletting, used then state-of-the-art engineering and construction: reinforced concrete, elevators and electrical lighting, clad in a classical skin. Kletting took advantage of concrete's strength to include larger windows and a soaring space punctuated with skylights to brighten the building's grand interior.
The capitol's impressive appearance had been burnished by a four-year renovation and restoration project completed in 2009. Some original design features were restored, others recreated. Conservation of artwork plus newly commissioned pieces blend harmoniously.
Original carpet design recreated from old photos was woven by the same mill as the original. Of course, new technology was integrated into the building. But the most impressive accomplishment is not obvious. The building is now earthquake-safe thanks to the placement of 265 isolators, each weighing two and one-half tons, beneath the original foundation.
Craning our necks and gawking, we stood in the rotunda, 165-feet beneath the capitol dome's painted ceiling while Marilyn pointed out the murals. Artists of the Public Works of Art Program painted them in 1934 and they were installed a year later. These colorful panels depict scenes from Utah history and adorn the drum that supports the dome plus the four arched triangles that transfer the dome's weight to columns. We learned each column supports ten million pounds!
Interior, Utah State Capitol
The State Reception Room, also called the Gold Room and the International Room, must be the fanciest in the capitol. It's a place for official state functions, but it also serves to wow visitors. The "Gold" moniker derives from the 22-carat gold leaf used in decorations, while the "International" label refers to the room's furnishings. Marilyn pointed out the Russian walnut table, Italian tapestry, English crystal chandeliers, and French mirrors, these backed with gold instead of the usual silver, imparting a warm reflection. The elaborate room cost $60,000 to construct, a tidy sum in 1916. Today, each of four chandeliers is valued at $40,000.
In the Governor's ceremonial office we learned about the furniture, perhaps not historic, but remarkable nevertheless. The beautifully crafted desk, table and cabinets were custom made by local carpenter Chris Gochnour from trees that lined the capitol grounds until uprooted in a 1999 tornado. Here we had an heroic example of making lemonade from lemons.
The Governor's ceremonial office Let there be light!
As Marilyn led us around the interior, pointing out book-matched marble panels near the north entrance, checking-out the Supreme Court chambers and both legislative chambers, we noticed we weren't the only ones taking notes. Our companions scribbled in their notebooks as Marilyn explained that the 75 members of the House of Representatives served two-year terms and hold one 45-day session during the first three months each year, or that the bust in the hall was of Simon Bamburger, the state's fourth Governor and its first, and so far only, Jewish one.
It seems their professor advised them that they would be tested on what they learned on this tour. Marilyn may never have guided a more attentive group. We think we would have aced the exam.
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Utah State Capitol: Tours Monday-Friday 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM; (801) 538-1800; utahstatecapitol.utah.gov
Find Janet and Stu at www.wilsonstravels.com
This story was originally published in RV Journal Magazine.