The Pennsylvania State Capitol

After our visit to the National Civil War Museum, we drove to the State Capitol down State Street.  What a spectacular view!  It is a very grand and imposing complex, full of interesting angles and shapes and topped with a fabulous dome.  The current – and sixth – capitol building dates from 1906 and is a splendid example of that era’s architecture, known as American Renaissance.

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We parked up and decided to go for a wander around the exterior of the building.  This involved an amble through the grounds, a public park dominated by a monument dedicated to the dead of the Mexican-American War.  It is a 64 foot column topped by a guardian angel.

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I was most taken by the building’s magnificent dome which is covered in green glazed terracotta tiles.  Apparently it is modelled on the dome of St Peter’s Basilica, weighs 24,000 tonnes and is 94 feet in diameter.  The dome is completed at its summit by a golden statue named Commonwealth – though sometimes named Letitia for William Penn’s daughter.  She stands on a 4 foot globe and holds a staff of justice which is topped by a garland and eagle.  Unfortunately the east facade of the building  was undergoing extensive renovation on the day of our visit so areas were roped off, there was construction equipment everywhere and, most annoyingly, the fountains were switched off.  Nevertheless we had a good nose around as much as we could tolerate in the absolutely baking heat.

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Then – an unexpected treat – we got to go inside!  We had not anticipated being permitted to visit given how stringent security checks have to be these days.  However, a friendly security guard processed us all quickly and soon we were admitted entrance.  The security guard pointed us in the direction of a free guided tour but unfortunately our parking meter was going to run out before it concluded so we had to give that a miss.  Next time maybe.  Instead we just had a little amble around ourselves.

We saw a lego version of the Commonwealth statue and a beautiful model of William Penn’s ship Welcome.  My 9 and 6 year old’s loved watching a model designed to show the workings of law making but which they just enjoyed as a kinetic sculpture, like a large marble run.  Having entered on the east side, we took an escalator up and then some stairs down in order to reach the west side, which is much more grand and imposing and really ought to have been the entrance we took to get the full impact.  There we saw the rotunda with its spectacularly grand staircase sweeping upwards through the space.  The bottom of the stairs were flanked by angels holding up glowing globes.  I loved their elegant lines and the sweep of their wings.

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The decoration of the rotunda itself is stunning.  I loved the four paintings by Edwin Austin Abbey that symbolised Science, Religion, Justice and Art.  All of the murals in the Capitol’s interior were wonderful but I thought those were particularly beautiful.  We also all enjoyed seeing the floor which was decorated with Moravian tiles by Henry Chapman Mercer.  These were mosaics forming pictorial representations of Pennsylvania’s  history, industry, flora and fauna.  The kids liked the bat best because it looked like Batman’s symbol.

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I wish we could have spent longer exploring the Capitol but I am sure we will return to Harrisburg at some point.  For this trip, however, our parking meter was about to run out so it was time to leave the cool, shade and peace of the Capitol and emerge back out onto the roasting streets and clamber back into the sweltering car.  The boys were very glad that our hotel had a swimming pool to play around in after such a hot day.

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12 thoughts on “The Pennsylvania State Capitol

  1. Another very interesting post Laura……… I love the Angel lights at the bottom of the very grand staircase. I’m also amazed to hear that Pennsylvania is still very hot at this time of the year, I’d always imagined that part of the USA to have a sort of UK like climate.

    • It’s not only still very hot but also very humid. Daylight hours feel like standing in a steaming hot shower. It was in the mid-90s both days of our trip though the second day was easier because there was a little less humidity.

      The climate is actually very different here from in Scotland. There are distinctive seasons here whereas Scotland can often feel like we have Autumn days in Summer. The summers here are far hotter and the winters far colder. When in the midst of a heatwave (and we’ve had a few heat warnings this year) it seems impossible to believe that we were digging the car out from several feet of snow just a few months before. We also don’t get much change in daylight hours. The time for dusk changes by just over an hour between winter and summer. It was quite something for the kids to experience bright blue skies on winter days.

      Thank you for reading and commenting.

  2. A beautiful building, it sounds fascinating too, shame you had to miss the guided tour but there’s always a next time, sometimes it’s also just nice to mooch about by yourself!! Roasting streets and sunny weather sound great to me too – wishful thinking here….

  3. I’ll put this on my list to you, but I’ll mention (you may know this) that the tiles in the building are Mercer tiles which were made in Doylestown. Mercer was a fascinating man and there are three sites in Doylestown associated with him – Mercer Museum, Fonthill (his home) and the Moravian Tile Works, where the tiles were made. You can find plenty of info on him and these locations on the internet so I won’t go on here, but I think these could be great spots to visit if you haven’t. It will take more than one trip!

    • Thank you so much for that tidbit, Claudia! That is very cool. I have been to Doylestown but not properly explored it yet and have not yet visited any of those places you mention. We really ought to get our skates on and go explore properly.

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