Before we left the evergreen state we decided we should get a good look at its capitol Olympia, Washington. I’ve been interested in architecture for quite a long time. Back in my early teens I aspired to become an Architect. Ultimately the educational requirements and years of drawing wall joists and door fittings before I could design houses dissuaded me. None the less I love buildings, old ones, modern ones, big ones, small ones, you name it. Older capital buildings are often favorites of mine and I’d seen the Washington capital building in passing many times traveling south but never up close.
While the weather was less than stellar we were spared heavy rain for our visit. Trail did her homework as usual and discovered there were hourly tours between 11am and 3pm each day, generally run by volunteers. It turned out that ours was running his first tour. We let him know not to worry as it was our first tour as well. The great thing about a volunteer tour guide is you know they love the thing they are going to show you. This fine gentleman was no exception and as we were his only guests we got to ask lots of questions and linger where we liked or speed through the bits that were not as interesting to us.
In truth the Capital building was built as part of a complex of 6 buildings, 5 of which were actually built. The last was to be the Governor’s palace but ultimately they decided to skip that and keep the one that was already on the grounds. The complex was completed in 1928 after near a decade of construction. Our tour was of the Capital building itself but across the way was the imposing and wonderfully named “Temple of Justice” where the supreme court of Washington holds session. I would have loved to give it a look but on the weekend it was closed to the public.
These buildings are best described as imposing on the outside. Massive granite columns and walls bare surprisingly little ornamentation, most of which is reserved for the capital dome high overhead. They don’t so much soar as squat on the grounds. I found them to project an aura of stern authority and power, more impressive than inspiring. None the less they are dramatic and that is what I like best in a building. Heading into the capital building things are considerably warmer and definitely much more ornate.
A great detail are the massive bronze entry doors, each more than a ton and fully sculpted with scenes of Washington state’s primary industries in the time it was built. Beyond these the is a beautiful entry room that sets the tone with marble walls and bronze fixtures by the Tiffany company. The capitol in fact contains the worlds largest collection of Tiffany brass works and the largest chandler Tiffany ever created, weighing over 10,000 pounds.
In the huge central atrium you tend to loose all sense of scale. From the floor of the chamber to the top of the interior dome is 175 feet. In fact the bronze part of the statue of liberty could comfortably stand in the chamber (it is about 150 feet tall). I think it is fitting for state capitals to have buildings like this. Open interior spaces serve little practical function, and almost always mean the location is meant to be appreciated of its own qualities and that means to be open to the public. So a building that stands for the government that is of by and for the people should be a very public space.
Our tour included a walk through the grand ball room which was built to entertain visiting dignitaries. I was impressed that the massive carpet there was the original and by all appearances was in great condition. In its day it was the largest single loom carpet ever made. Honestly I felt a bit self conscious walking around on it. We were told all the furniture in the room was also original though it had been reupholstered recently. All in all the tour took around an hour and covered topics from history, architecture, design, and the uses of the building in the modern age.
The grounds of the Capital also contain a number of works of art, including a fantastic monument to the soldiers and combat support personnel of world war one. It is a massive bronze with really fantastic detail and design. Unfortunately this time of year the gardens and grounds are a bit barren but like many capitals there were a number of old and fantastic trees to admire that even without their foliage were most impressive.