To say that a Pennsylvania State Capitol tour in Harrisburg is a pleasant surprise is a massive understatement. For a state that was founded on Quaker values eschewing materialism, there sure is a whole lot of 23K gold, Italian marble, and two dozen stained glass windows created by a student of Tiffany. And all of this in that awkward middleground between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, surrounded by farms, many from Amish families, and industry. What could pass in part as, perhaps, the mansion of a turn of the century American magnate or an elaborate cathedral, or even just a museum, is actually the capitol building. And with free tours of the capitol building, you’d be silly not to visit and take it all in. Just don’t blame me if you get a sore neck from gazing upwards at the ceiling and walls.
Brief History of the Pennsylvania State Capitol
Harrisburg has been the capital of Pennsylvania since 1812. Since that time there have been three different capitol buildings. The first, from 1822 until 1897, was the work of Stephen Hills. The capitol he designed for Pennsylvania was a Federal-style building of red brick. But in February of 1897, fire destroyed the building.
The replacement, and second, capitol building was built in 1899. The building is the work of Henry Ives Cobb. The multi-story brown brick building had an institutional look. The building won no fans with its aesthetics and Governor William A. Stone assigned a commission the task of a new capitol in 1901. It’s this commission for the third capitol that resulted is the building we know today. The architect who won the commission? Joseph Miller Huston.
The Pennsylvania State Capitol was dedicated on October 4, 1906. President Theodore Roosevelt attended the event and declared it “the handsomest building I ever saw.” The building, with its American Renaissance style, is the work of Philadelphia architect Joseph Huston. The cost? $13 million. But it only takes a tour of the building to understand the costs. It’s difficult to imagine any finer materials or more spectacular craftsmanship.
Touring the Pennsylvania Capitol Building
The Capitol Building has more than 600 rooms. Needless to say, tours don’t showcase every individual room. In general, tours hit the major areas of government such as the Senate and House of Representatives. It’s important to keep in mind that while this is a public building, it’s also a working government building. So it’s possible that certain areas may not be accessible. Visitors popping in to the State Supreme Court in the middle of arguments is frowned upon. (Go figure.)
But one thing is for sure: there’s so much to see at the Capitol Building and so many details to take in. It doesn’t matter if your interests lie with art, architecture, history, politics or any combination of them. A Pennsylvania State Capitol tour is really a must see, and not just for Pennsylvania citizens.
Stepping Into the Capitol Rotunda
Just approaching the Capitol Building makes quite the impression. The massive, spectacular building sits on a hill with a view from the main entrance extending down State Street and onto the Susquehanna River. Two sculptures by Pennsylvania artist George Grey Barnard flank the main entrance’s spectacular 17-foot bronze doors that give Rodin’s “Gates of Hell” a run for its money.
Before you enter, be sure to take a peek up above. Atop the green terra cotta tile Capitol dome is a nearly eighteen-foot gilded bronze statue. “Commonwealth,” as she is called, is by sculptor Roland Hinton Perry.
Once you step inside the Capitol Rotunda, it’s like entering the hallowed halls of that mansion or cathedral. Nearly 400 tiles from Henry Chapman Mercer’s famous Moravian Pottery & Tile Works in Doylestown, just outside of Philadelphia, depicting distinctly Pennsylvanian nature, objects and history cover the entire ground floor. It’s extremely fun to scour all of the tiles and see what’s there: from the cow and housefly to William Penn and the automobile.
The Paris Opera House served as inspiration for certain elements of the Rotunda, such as the grand staircase of Italian carrara marble. Eight larger than life murals by Philadelphia’s Edwin Austin Abbey recall different, prominent aspects of Pennsylvania life at the turn of the century, such as coal mining. And straight above is an incredible 272-foot dome that takes inspiration from St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. To say the Rotunda is lavish is an understatement.
One of the great things about the Capitol Building is the works by Pennsylvania artists. While the features of the art and architecture of the building aren’t exclusive to artists from the Keystone State, they certainly are noticeable.
The Senate of Pennsylvania
Visitors enter the Senate via the public gallery which is high above and overlooking the Senate floor. The far wall is covered, across the entire width of the room, by multiple murals by Violet Oakley. In one she depicts the founding fathers in Philadelphia while in another she imagines Lincoln giving the Gettysburg Address. 10 beautiful stained glass portholes by William B. Van Ingen, a student of Tiffany, line the walls above beautiful and rare Irish Connemara green marble. The room, with its 50 Belize-made mahogany senate desks dotting the floor, underwent renovations in 1994 and is originally the work of architect Joseph Huston. Dark, rich green walls and more 23-carat gold details give the room a real feeling of drama.
The House of Representatives of Pennsylvania
Similar to the Senate, visitors to the House of Representatives enter through the public gallery over the House floor where 203 members meet. The Speaker’s chair is carved pollard oak and upholstered in ornately tooled Spanish leather. Fourteen more stained glass windows by Van Ingen line the room while six 2- to 4-ton chandeliers requiring more than 1000 light bulbs illuminate the room.
The House Chamber is home to the Capitol’s largest mural, “The Apotheosis of Pennsylvania” by Abbey. The 35-square foot canvas depicts 28 famous Pennsylvanians and those who played an important role in the state’s history encircling a figure representing the Genius of State. The Who’s Who includes Penn, Benjamin Franklin, Sir Walter Raleigh and Pennsylvanian-born Daniel Boone. Abbey has four additional works in the room, including paintings of Baron von Steuben at Valley Forge and “Penn’s Treaty with the Indians.”
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court
Although there is a Supreme Court chamber in Harrisburg, there are also similar meeting spots in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The court rotates between the locations. But the one in Harrisburg maintains the lavish details and artwork that you would expect from the Capitol Building. Mahogany wainscotting and furniture cover the room.
Sixteen further paintings from Violet Oakley cover the walls while a gorgeous green stained glass dome by Alfred Godwin encircles the ceiling. My favorite details, however, are the hanging light fixtures. In the middle of each of the four lights are small golden statuettes.
Scheduling a Pennsylvania State Capitol Tour
It could not be any easier to book a Pennsylvania State Capitol tour and visit the state capitol in Harrisburg. Prospective visitors can book a guided tour online up to a year in advance. Pennsylvania State Capitol tours are offered daily. And, don’t forget, the price is right: tours are free!
You can, of course, do a self-guided tour. And just for the Capitol Rotunda alone it’s tempting. But I highly recommend a guided tour. My husband and I visited on a Friday morning in September. Our guide, Jill, was highly knowledgeable both in the history and facts of the building. But she also brought her own experiences from what she’s seen at the capitol, riveting us with stories of renovations and light bulb changes in those massive chandeliers.
It was also quite quiet. Peak time for tours is, as you may expect, due to school and tour groups. Avoid May through June for fewer crowds and field trips.
The Pennsylvania State Capitol Building is in downtown Harrisburg. Interstate 81 runs along the north while interstate 83 runs along the south. Both interstate routes are easily accessible via the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The Harrisburg Parking Authority is a good resource for parking options, from street parking to garages.
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Thank you to Capitol Visitor Services and Visit Hershey & Harrisburg! All photos, as well as all opinions, are my own.