Saturday, August 23, 2014

Springfield, Illinois

The drive from St. Louis took us straight north through endless, flat farms. The scenery hardly varied, but the clouds dotting the enormous blue sky were nothing short of spectacular on that chilly March morning. As we came into town, the clouds turned dark and covered the sun, giving the impression that it was about to rain.
We went to Café Moxo for lunch. It was a locally owned sandwich place that seemed to be quite popular. After waiting for a short while in the line, we ordered our sandwiches and sat at a small table. When our lunch came, everything was tasty and prepared well, but the portion size seemed a little bit small, and we both left the restaurant still feeling hungry. Several weeks later, when I wrote as much in a review of the Café on Yelp, the owner replied that, “I would recommend the bag lunch option (full sandwich/chips/cookie/­drink for $9.75 or the half sandwich/chips/cookie/­drink for $7.50),” and I couldn’t help but think that I shouldn’t need chips and a cookie to fill me up after buying a full sandwich. Oh, well.
           After our bite to eat, we went to the Capitol and managed to find parking extremely close to the magnificent looming edifice. The architect, Alfred H. Piquenard, also designed the Iowa Capitol, which is another one of my favorites. Illinois’ 6th Capitol was completed in 1888 with final costs totaling $4.3 million. It is primarily constructed of limestone, granite, and both domestic and imported marbles. The building underwent a major restoration (as almost every state Capitol has, at some point) in 2011; the major focuses were ADA accessibility, utilities, and returning the structure to its 1880s appearance.
            As we walked up to the courtyard, the first statue was of Abraham Lincoln. His towering figure and the wall behind it obscured anything behind it, so as we approached all we could see was Lincoln and the Capitol. The grey clouds and leafless trees magnified his somber face, that of a man who was exhausted, haunted, and weary. Deeper in the courtyard, closer to the Capitol steps stood another man worth mentioning. Dwarfed in comparison to Lincoln’s stony form, the stocky statue of the “Little Giant,” Stephen A. Douglas glowered up at the stormy sky. Douglas ran against Lincoln for Illinois State Senator in the 1858 election. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were held in 7 different towns, and became iconic after Lincoln edited the texts and had them published in a book, which led to his nomination in the 1860 presidential election. The debates revealed each of their senses of humor, marked with spontaneous jabs, like when Douglas accused Lincoln of being two-faced. Lincoln calmly responded, “I leave it to my audience: If I had two faces, would I be wearing this one?” In their ideology, they both believed slavery should be abolished, but Douglas felt strongly that the states needed to decide the situation independently.
Douglas’s statue had a pensive face with a furrowed brow, watchful and yet preoccupied. Even through their frozen expressions, the differences in his and Lincoln’s demeanors were apparent. Though Douglas was a great man and an important figure in Illinois and US politics and was given a place of honor in front of the Capitol, I think it is fitting that when one is standing on the sidewalk Lincoln’s statue fills your vision. Lincoln truly earned his unique place of honor in our history and our state Capitol courtyards. It seems only right that at first approach, all you can see is Lincoln and the Capitol.
            We continued inside, checked in at the tour desk, and were informed that the next tour began in about 15 minutes. While we waited, we decided to wander around the breath-taking first floor. Springfield was only my 37th Capitol, but I knew as soon as I walked into that rotunda that it was definitely my favorite. It was indescribably beautiful. The soaring columns, stained glass windows, and carved bronze relief murals that stretch around the entire circumference surpassed any other state Capitol.
In the center of the main floor of the rotunda, which is the other prominent place of honor in almost every Capitol, was a statue of a woman in classical, Romanesque garb standing with her arms outstretched. Julia Bracken created Illinois Welcoming the World for the 1893 Chicago World Fair. The tall figure stood with her back to the grand staircase, facing Lincoln’s statue in the courtyard in front of the building. The statue nods to the metropolitan might and cultural importance of Chicago, particularly during the end of the 19th century when the Midwestern cities were expanding rapidly. Between 1850 and 1900, Chicago’s population exploded from 29,963 to 1,698,575. Newly built railroads and canals expedited transportation and allowed for a truly nationalized economy, which led to massive immigration and population growth.  Chicago has always been known for its diversity, and it was this period in the late 1800s that earned the city that reputation. These late 19th century arrivals mostly consisted of the Irish, Germans, Italians, Russian Jews, and Slavs. Because of the diversity resulting from this period of rapid immigration, it was especially fitting that Illinois Welcoming the World was created for the 1893 Chicago World Fair, and that the statue was in the center of the rotunda.
The guide informed us that the tour was about to start. He was a dignified, stern man of few words who could not have had a more different demeanor than his jolly, grandfatherly counterpart at the Iowa Capitol, and he took very seriously any comparison I made between “his” building and Iowa’s Capitol. That being said, he was a wonderful guide and gave an informative tour of a gorgeous building.
We visited each of the Chambers as well as the Governor’s office and the Hall of Governors. The Chambers were breathtaking, particularly the moldings, carvings, and paintings that adorned every inch of the ceiling. The House Chamber was larger and had a stunning stained glass window in the center of the ceiling.
The second floor of the rotunda revealed some of the other works of art that are scattered throughout the building. An enormous mural that stood at the top of the Grand Staircase depicts George Rogers Clark negotiating with Native Americans at Fort Kaskaskia in 1778. Statues of other important Illinoisans dotted the circumference of the rotunda, including two other statues of Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, which seemed to be eyeing each other daringly. The other statues were of Illinois Governor John Wood; Speaker of the House David E. Shanahan; 48-year state Senator Richard J. Barr; the first woman elected to the House, Lottie Holman O’Neill; Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley; and the first African American to be elected to the state Senate, Adelbert H. Roberts.
The tour ended in the Hall of Governors, which had the portraits of all of the Illinois’ Governors, except Rod Blagojevich, who was convicted in 2011 and found guilty of 17 federal charges, including extortion, and is currently serving a 14-year sentence in federal prison. He was impeached by the Illinois General Assembly in 2009, so the state decided that if Blagojevich would like a portrait of himself in the Hall of Governors, then he must pay for it himself.
After the tour, we drove a half-mile to the Lincoln Home. It sits amid a historic neighborhood that has now been designated as a National Park. We went to the visitor’s center first and purchased tickets for the tour of the Lincoln Home. As is typical in the Midwest, everyone we encountered was incredibly friendly, and enjoyable company. After taking a look around the gift shop, we exited the visitor’s center and walked back down the block to the benches where the tours began.
Over the next several minutes, a group began to assemble, and the guide got everybody’s attention. After he described the additions and renovations that the Lincolns did on the structure, we all walked inside the house and into the formal sitting room. As was traditional in those days, the children were not allowed in the formal sitting room. Some of the furniture in the room that day was originally the Lincolns’, but not all of it. After they went to Washington, the home was used as a rental property for a while, and much of the furniture ended up elsewhere. Still, it was impressive to think that some of the furniture was there when Lincoln received the news that he had won the Presidency. The formal sitting room was also used to entertain Abraham’s guests and business associates.
Next we filed through the dining area to the family room where the children could play with their toys in the evening. Our guide pointed out some of the toys in the room, and informed us that the Lincoln children had some of the most sought after toys of the time. After taking a look, we ventured upstairs to see the bedrooms.
Abraham and Mary had separate bedrooms. Mary suffered from severe headaches and would have to retreat to her room to recover if she had one. The writing desk and the armoire in Abraham’s room were original to the house, and the wallpaper was – how should I say?  vivid. There were also two other bedrooms for the children and a small room at the back of the house for the hired girl, who was usually a young woman in her middle to late teens working for modest pay as well as room and board, typically until she got married. At the end of the tour, the entire group squeezed into the tiny kitchen to admire the then-state of the art appliances that the Lincolns had. On the way out, I thanked the guide earnestly. I enjoyed the tour immensely, and if you find yourself in Springfield with time on your hands, I strongly recommend a visit to both the Lincoln Home and the Capitol.

Abraham Lincoln was one of our most important Presidents because he faced the hardest challenges of all. During a time when the country was the most divided than it ever has been, he managed to maintain the union. Chicago’s diversity and love of cultural celebration, as well as the kind, hospitable Midwestern mentality, are a few things that come to mind when thinking of Illinois’ culture, and because of that it makes sense that a man like Abraham Lincoln had his roots in Illinois.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Columbus, Ohio

The winding ride through the sun struck mountains of Pennsylvania brought us to Columbus, Ohio nine long hours later. That day was the beginning of the last large portion of our trip; we had visited 36 states and had only 14 left to see, mostly in the western half of the country. We had grown weary of the relentless winter battering the East Coast and were thrilled to be back on the road. Spring was coming, and the west was calling our name.
The first day in Columbus was brisk, the city still trying to shake off the talons of winter. We woke up early and cooked breakfast before heading downtown to visit the Capitol. After battling fierce traffic and circuitous one-way streets in downtown Columbus, we finally found the entrance to the public parking garage directly below the Capitol. That is a convenience that we definitely appreciated, and this was the only Capitol so far whose underground parking has been available to the public as well as legislators and staff. 
We parked and entered the building, searching for a tour desk and information on the ground floor. We found the map room, which has a mosaic of all the Ohio counties in six types of marble from around the world, and discovered that the tours began on the far side of the room. The guide informed us that a school tour was about to arrive momentarily, so we decided to take a pamphlet with a map and wander around on our own. First we climbed the nearest staircase, looking for the rotunda.
One unique feature of Ohio’s Capitol is that it was originally two buildings. The ‘Statehouse’ and the ‘Senate building’ used to be separate, with an open-air porch occupying the space between them. Before the atrium was built, the space was called “pigeon run” because of the pigeons that were always perched on the roofs of the two buildings. Since it has been enclosed, the atrium, with all of its glass and natural light, is used for any and all large events, groups, or gatherings. This alteration was the perfect solution for a treacherous outdoor corridor that was unpleasant and even dangerous to traverse in the winter months. While we were there, there was some sort of function for the new lawyers in the state, and the entire room was packed with people in their late twenties wearing suits, so we slowly worked our way across the atrium and into the rotunda.
This Capitol rotunda was unlike any other. For one, it was the pinkest rotunda we had seen so far on this trip, and secondly, you could only view it from the main floor. There was no balcony or gallery allowing access on the floors above, so the main floor was the only vantage point. The entire room was a giant cylinder rising up to the dome and stained glass window above, with tall, narrow stone arches adorning the entire circumference. On four sides of the room, the arches led to other hallways with the chambers, governor’s office, and historical exhibits. The floor was a white and black tile in a circular pattern that almost looked like an optical illusion.
When we were finished remarking on the unusual aspects of the rotunda, we moved on the Governor’s Office. Unfortunately, we were unable to enter without a tour guide (it seemed, in fact, as if the room might not be accessible to the public at all). To make up for not allowing access, they kindly placed a photo of the formal reception room on an easel in the hallway so we could still get an idea of what the room looked like.
We went upstairs and visited the Senate Chamber. I was immediately amused by their choice in carpet, which can only be described as vivid. Somehow after seeing all of the pink in the rest of the building, I was still surprised. There were other aspects of the room that were much more tasteful, however. The columns in the rear of the room are Pennsylvania marble with Corinthian capitals. The chandeliers were gorgeous, black and gold metal with a gothic design. I really liked them, but they seemed sort of out of place in this “Greek Revival” chamber. The walls were painted a tan color that complemented the plentiful carved woodwork around the windows and doors. The desks were reproductions of the originals and wired with voting buttons and microphones, but handsome nonetheless. The ceiling had intricate carvings around the tops of the chandeliers and stained glass skylights brightening the spaces in between. There used to be balcony seating for the gallery, but the balcony was removed in the early part of the twentieth century, so the public seating was moved to the edges of the room on either side of the Senator’s desks. It was a beautiful chamber, no doubt, but some of the design choices were certainly a little surprising.
The House Chamber was much larger to accommodate its 99 members, but otherwise it looks very similar. The balcony in this room was still intact, however, and it was actually the only way to gain entry to the chamber. The desks date back to 1909, unlike the reproductions in the Senate Chamber, but they have been wired for modern voting technology. Again, I enjoyed the architecture and design of the ceiling, and the stained glass skylights. Unfortunately, the same carpet and chandelier choices continued into this room.
After visiting the chambers, we decided to check out some of the rooms with historical exhibits. One of the rooms was the George Washington Williams Memorial Room, which honors Ohio’s first African-American legislator. The room is styled in the 1880s, with various portraits of other African-American legislators. There was also the Ladies Gallery, which was a room that pays tribute to first six female legislators. It also had some displays with information on legislators, activists, and other people that have contributed to the women’s rights movement. Although I appreciate exhibits that commemorate members of disadvantaged groups and the people that worked tirelessly to improve their position, it always strikes me as being a gesture that could be described as “too little too late.” It’s all well and good if there is a room in the building commemorating African American legislators, but since they are still grossly underrepresented in Ohio, the room doesn’t really do much to actually promote equality. And furthermore, why did The Ladies’ Gallery have all sorts of displays describing the many trials they faced and their bravery in fighting for equal rights, but the George Washington Williams Memorial room did not? The rooms just seemed like a symbolic gesture to me. Instead of passing legislation or trying to do things that actually promote equality, did the state government just put up a couple of historical exhibits and told themselves that they’ve done enough?
After we finished touring the main parts of the building, we returned to the ground floor and explored the gift shop and Capitol museum. We bought a state postcard and key chain, as well as some locally produced tomato sauce for dinner that night. After making our purchases, we went to the museum, which we discovered was mostly about the legislative process. There was also a café that served the employees, but instead we decided to try a sandwich place across the street that had promising reviews on Yelp.
We braved the bitter wind and crossed the street to Market 65, which was a soup/salad/sandwich place. Immediately I noticed that this must be a popular restaurant, because it was just after the lunch rush, and the employees seemed as though they had just won a tremendous battle. The assembly line for the food was a little, eh, chaotic, but the food itself was pretty good. After eating our meals, we went back over to the Capitol to take some pictures of the outside before climbing back in our Subaru and driving to the museum.
The Ohio History Center is a few miles from downtown Columbus by the police-training academy. It’s a large, modern building, housing a number of offices as well as the museum on the main floor. Admission was $10 per person, which is pretty steep for a museum, but luckily the exhibits did not disappoint us.
The first area was dedicated to the natural history and geology of Ohio, and included various semi-precious stones like quartz that are native to the Ohio area. Then there was a room of battle flags, mostly from the Civil War. As we exited the flag room and rounded the corner, we came upon an exhibit about the 1950s, which was extremely interesting.
The first wall showed an info-graphic with various statistics comparing everyday life from the 1950s to present. For instance, the median age in America was 30.2 years in 1950 and 37.1 years in 2013; the percentage of women in the workforce was 28.8% in 1950 compared with 58.6% in 2010; and the average household debt was less than $2,000 in 1950 and a whopping $22,615 in 2012. Some other facts that the display illustrated included the US population, median household income, and the minimum wage. I was disappointed that the graphic did not include some other important facts, like the cost of higher education, percentage of households with only a single parent, and the average percentage of income spent on consumer products versus living expenses. On the other hand, it did provide some interesting tidbits, such as the number of drive-in movie theaters, television sales, and the number of polio cases in the US. I’m not sure if the display was merely an objective look at the differences, or if there was some ulterior politic motive, but it occurred to me that many of the facts presented fall in line with comparisons that the Republican Party makes from the 1950s to now. Considering Ohio’s political demographics, it wouldn’t surprise me if there were some correlation.
The next portion of the 1950s exhibit was extremely cool. Somehow, they managed to accommodate an entire 1950s two-bedroom house. It was stocked with every appliance, product, and trinket from the time period, down to the vacuum cleaner in the hall closet. I had to wonder how they found all of this stuff, because there was literally everything a family would need over the course of their daily life. The sheer scope of the collection was impressive, and I have to say that it was definitely one of the most unique exhibits that we have encountered so far.
The rest of the museum focused primarily on Ohio industry. Like much of the northeast and northern Midwest, Ohio was a manufacturing hub from the formation of the railroads up until about the 1960s, when new innovations and outsourced jobs reduced the industrial operations to a shadow of their former selves. To emphasize the importance of the railroads in the Ohio economy, the exhibit included one antique train car inside, and a number of others just outside the huge windows along the exterior walls. The railroads and canals greatly expedited transportation in the late 1800s and led to the manufacturing boom known today as the Industrial Revolution. As the western parts of our country were in their infancy, life in the east transitioned from widespread subsistence to the middle-class merchant life of factory work and small business. Suddenly, the have-nots were presented with real opportunity for social mobility, and the wealth gap slowly began to close. In our history, 1870 to 1970 was the century of greatest innovation and improvement in the lives of the majority of Americans, and much of it had to do with the Industrial Revolution.
In Ohio, manufacturing mostly consisted of furniture, porcelain china, and textiles. One of the more interesting and unusual companies represented was the Harris & Bros Carriage Makers, whose height of popularity was undoubtedly in the last few decades of the 19th century. The small display showed a number of their tools, and described their history and manufacturing process. Among the items in the rest of the room, there was an antique fire truck, Edison bulbs, and an area describing the importance of water and steam power.
The last two rooms were dedicated to textiles and fine china. In the first, vivid quilts hung from the ceiling all around the walls of the room, a railing separating the fabrics from the greasy hands of the museum’s visitors. The second room was more like a hallway leading to the museum’s lobby, with glass cases in the walls on either side. The china tea sets in these cases were beautifully painted, and they were so colorful and ornate that it looked like the kind of thing you would see in a movie about the American elite.  Each one was certainly more fancy than anything I have ever drunk tea from.
After several hours of exploration and research, we were definitely ready to relax. It was wonderful to see a Capitol building that had its own personal style compared to others we have visited, and the museum was one of the most interesting ones that we had seen on the trip. Learning more about the 1950s and Ohio’s robust manufacturing history, provided greater insight into the struggles of today’s world and economy, as well as the drastic degree of the improvement of everyday life.

The next day, we set off for St. Louis and Springfield, Illinois, which was the final capital city left for us to visit east of the Mississippi River. The call from the west was intensifying with each and every day.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Hartford, Connecticut

After getting a diner breakfast in Albany, Rob and I hit the road and drove towards Hartford. It was a short, scenic drive through the hills and forests of New England. The evergreens were coated in frost and the roads were white with salt reflecting the winter sunlight. It wasn’t long before we arrived at our hotel just a short distance outside of the city.

After we checked into our hotel, we relaxed for a little while before driving into the city to get dinner. We decided to go to a place that we had been to once before on our way up to New Hampshire. It was a Mexican restaurant downtown called the Agave Grill, hidden amongst all of the high rises, but luckily parking was not difficult to find. We went inside and were seated immediately.

We ordered tableside guacamole, I ordered chicken enchiladas, and Rob ordered tacos. Our entrees were done and brought to our table before the guacamole was even prepared, and I wasn’t particularly thrilled about the enchiladas. They were just really bland, and that was pretty disappointing considering that I remembered the food being much better in our previous visit.

The next day we got some breakfast before heading downtown to see the Capitol. I visited the Connecticut Capitol once before in August of 2013 when we did the rest of the New England states. Unfortunately, the first time, the entire Capitol was full of a huge group of students that were touring the building, and our only option for an official tour that would grant us entry to the chambers was to tag along with the school group. Now, I normally wouldn’t have a huge problem with that, but because of how many pictures I need to take for my posts, large tour groups aren’t very practical for this trip. Because of that, I was happy that when we returned in February, the building was mostly empty.

When we entered, we spoke to the guard at the front because we were unsure of any security measures. Also, there was a brand new metal detector waiting to be installed right next to the door, but she said, “Not yet. Soon, but not yet. After Sandy Hook, we’ve had to rethink our security policies.”

We continued to the tour office and spoke to the docent that was on duty. She said she’d have to wait another 15 minutes until the official start time, but if no one else showed up, she’d be happy to give us a private tour. We enthusiastically accepted and wandered around the main floor for a little while, passing the time until the tour. I was struck by how different this Capitol's architecture was compared to the common neo-classical styled buildings. Connecticut’s Capitol is reminiscent of a gothic cathedral, with countless arches, ornate carvings, and detailed paintings. It also seemed to have more statues than any other Capitol, around the entire exterior and plenty on the inside as well. It’s one of those buildings that can almost be a little bit overwhelming to walk through because there are so many things to look at all at once.

The tour began with the statue honoring the heroine of Connecticut, Prudence Crandall. She established the first academy for African-American girls in New England in 1833. For 18 months, Crandall and the girls she taught withstood harassment and violence during the school’s short time in operation. Crandall stood trial twice for breaking a law that was designed to make the school close, which it did in 1834 even though charges against her were dropped. Crandall and her students demonstrated inspiring courage in taking a stand against prejudice.

The next stop was at the statue in the center of the rotunda. The soaring female figure is called the “Genius of Connecticut,” and it is the second such statue that has been at the Capitol. The original was 17 feet 10 inches tall, weighed 3.5 tons, and was cast in Munich, Germany. It stood atop the Capitol dome from 1878 to 1938 when a hurricane damaged the statue. The replica was made in 2009, but the state has yet to raise the funds to lift it to the top of the dome, so it remains in the rotunda.

One of the other artifacts displayed on the main floor was the figurehead of the USS Hartford. In 1864 at the Battle of Mobile Bay, Admiral David Glasgow Farragut famously ordered the flagship to proceed through dangerous waters with his command, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” This quote has become an iconic symbol of American bravery, although some historians assert that it has been altered with time, or was possibly never said at all. Around the corner from the figurehead is a model of the USS Hartford.

To the left of the model ship, there was a large, old tree trunk peppered with cannon balls standing behind a black metal barrier and supported by the wall. A small sign read, “From the Battle of Chickamauga, September 19-20, 1863.” No Connecticut troops fought in that battle, but the tree was removed from the battlefield by a Hartford interior decorator by the name of E.S. Yergason, and he donated it to the state of Connecticut to ‘show the horrors of war’.

            After looking at a number of other things on the first floor, we ventured upstairs to see the chambers, which are only accessible if you are with a tour guide. First was the Senate Chamber, which is smaller and considered more exclusive. The desks were arranged in a circle around the state seal with the President of the Senate’s desk sitting directly across from the chamber entrance. A gallery stood watch on either side of the room, allowing the public to watch the proceedings. The chairs and carpet were a fantastic crimson while the walls were pale green, and the soaring ceiling had gorgeous wooden moldings and gold details. Overall it was one of the more grand chambers that I have seen on the trip, but I have to admit that I wasn’t wild about the color scheme.

            Next was the House Chamber, which was much more ornate than its Senate counterpart. The Speaker sat on the same wall as the entrance, with the desks of the representatives arranged like seating in an amphitheater, in a semi-circle with each row elevated higher than the one in front of it. There was almost every color imaginable in this room; the carpet was royal blue, the walls and columns were various shades of red, green, and yellow, and the ceiling was a combination of all of those and then some. The stained glass windows along the back wall complemented the color choices, as well as the moldings and gold details on the ceiling. Compared to some other Capitols, the chandeliers were fairly simple, but their simplicity helped balance out some of the chaos of the rest of the room.

            As the tour came to a close we were heading back downstairs when two important looking men began walking upstairs past us. The guide stopped and said, “Governor Malloy!” just as I realized who I was looking at. I immediately stuck out my hand and said, “Hi, my name is Elizabeth Henneman, and I am visiting all of the state Capitols...”

The Governor smiled and said, “Hold on, let’s at least get off the stairs,” and gestured towards the landing. Once we got upstairs I told him about the trip and the blog, and he asked, “What do you think of this one? It’s the only one like it, you know.” I replied that it was one of my favorites, which is true, and he flashed that perfect politician smile again and said, “Let me tell you a story of the first time I dined in the Governor’s Mansion.” He beckoned us toward the railing overlooking a portion of the main floor, and he pointed to the figurehead of the USS Hartford, the ship commanded by Admiral Farragut when he said his famous quote, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”

 The Governor said, “The first time I had dinner in the Governor’s Mansion… Have you been to the Governor’s Mansion? No? Well the first time I had dinner there, I noticed a large punch bowl, and it had that figurehead as each of its handles. Apparently I was the first person to ever notice that.”

After Governor Malloy left, the guide told me that it’s very unusual for him to stop and talk to people. “You must have caught him on a good day,” She said, “Normally you’ll get a hello and a wave, but it’s very rare for that to happen.” I was pleased that I had gotten a chance to meet the Governor, even if it was a short encounter, especially because it was purely by chance.

We braved the bitter cold once again to go across the street to see the state museum, and the Supreme Court Chamber. The chamber was beautiful, decorated in blue with a heavenly mural on the ceiling. It was by far one of the largest and most aesthetically appealing of the Supreme Court chambers that I’ve seen. It is definitely worth looking in on if you are visiting the Capitol already.

The museum itself was interesting. The main room of the building housed a number of displays about the Charter Oak, which is an important part of Connecticut history. The story of the Charter Oak goes that when James II succeeded the throne of England, royal forces came to Connecticut to try and take their charter. While each side of the conflict sat in a candle-lit room on either side of a table, with the charter resting in between them, the lights went out and when the candles were re-lit, the charter was gone. Captain Joseph Wadsworth is credited with taking the charter and hiding in the oak on a large estate, therefore keeping it safe. This Charter Oak is a symbol of freedom and rebellion against tyranny in Connecticut’s history, and it is also the official state tree.

I noticed Moravian tile on the floor of this main room, which I talked about in the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania post. Henry Mercer famously made Moravian tile in Doylestown, Pennsylvania where his factory still remains. I wouldn’t be surprised if the tile on this floor was some of the same, because it is very similar in style, design, and material, but I haven’t been able to find definitive proof anywhere.

The other exhibits consisted of various historic artifacts, mostly from the Revolutionary Era. The last display, however, was a very large collection of Colt Firearms that took up an entire room. I enjoyed looking at all the different variations from all different time periods. Some were more practical and commonplace while others were more ornate, unique, and collectable. Most museums have some firearms on display, but this was by far the largest collection that I’ve seen. Since Colt’s founding, more than 30 millions firearms have been produced, almost all of them in the Hartford, Connecticut area. Even though it is not something that I would have associated with Connecticut before visiting this museum, it was interesting to see its home state pay homage to the iconic American company.

After exploring the museum we hurried back to the Capitol and stepped inside to warm up from the biting wind before having to walk through the building to the parking lot on the other side. I was thrilled that I had met the Governor, and that another of my favorite Capitols was so close to home. It was definitely a wonderful visit to Connecticut. Now it was time to head home, and prepare for our next segment of our journey when we’d be heading west to the Rocky Mountains, with a few stops along the way.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Albany, New York

Rob and I woke up early on a Tuesday morning and drove up to Albany. The bright winter sun disappeared behind the clouds as we drove steadily north into the forests of New York State, and I contemplated the notion of the two New Yorks.
New York City is the biggest city in America and it’s also the center of the known universe. Things that happen in New York City affect people all around the world, including huge social and economic movements that first gain traction there. NYC is the epitome of the American melting pot. It was where many of our nation’s immigrants began their life here, and it is where all of the ethnicities of America come together as one. It is a magical place, but undeniably urban and fast-paced. Upstate New York has a very different culture. Here is where New England charm seizes the over-stressed city dwellers and coaxes them northward to discover what their soul has been craving: natural escape. And while many people vacation there, those that live in upstate New York are some of the most likeable people on the planet. Imagine small-town hospitality mixed with New York candor and humor. That, to me, is an amazing combination.
            I have been coming to upstate New York my entire life. Like many other New Jerseyans, the Adirondacks are my heaven on earth. Well, at least my “heaven on earth” that’s east of the Rocky Mountains. The summers in Adirondack State Park are some of the most enjoyable, with mild temperatures and gorgeous scenery. It has some of the tallest mountains of the Appalachian range and combined with countless lakes, the outdoor activities available are essentially endless. Unfortunately, it was still winter when I made my journey, and the ice and snow was more than plentiful.
            Rob and I arrived in Albany before 11am. First, we went straight to the New York State Museum. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize that the Bar Exam was going on in the building next door, so there was literally no parking within a 5-block radius. Considering that it was 10 degrees outside including the wind chill, we kept looking for parking close by. We circled the area, doubling back to look at every gap that might have been a parking space. We even tried a few of the pay lots, but all of them were reserved as additional parking for the exam. We eventually discovered a block of spaces a short distance from the museum that would become available at 12, so we decided to find somewhere to get an early lunch so we didn’t have to walk too far in the biting cold.
            I searched Yelp on my phone and found the Iron Gate Cafe near the Capitol, so we drove over, parked in an over-priced garage, and then hurried inside. It was a cute little place nestled amongst the office buildings, set back from the street, protected by an iron fence and a small courtyard that was covered in snow. It seemed that this was mostly a to-go place that served many of the state government employees and other businesses in the area. I ordered a BLT with avocado, and sat at one of two tables in the tiny cafe. In the next ten minutes, a few small groups arrived to place their order, and the line was already out the door. Grateful that I had decided to come early and avoided the wait, I busied myself on my phone while my sandwich was being prepared. In no time, another worker appeared from the back with our meals, and we were both delighted with our choices. The ingredients were fresh and tasty, and it was just the thing we needed before we started our day of research.
            After the reviving meal, we drove back to the museum and confidently parked in the previously unavailable spaces before walking inside. The museum was a modern building, and definitely the largest state-funded museum that we have been to so far. Admission was free and the exhibits spanned the massive 1st floor. The rest of the levels were offices, with exception of the carousel on the top floor.
            The exhibits began to the right of the information desk with a private collection of antiques. It continued on into a large archeological exhibit about Albany and the various artifacts that have been found over the years. One of the most interesting displays was a colonial rum distillery that was discovered during the excavation for a proposed parking structure. Peter W. Quakenbush and Volckert A. Douw built the still house in 1759, and it was operational until 1810.
Europeans first learned to distill spirits from the Arabs in the middle ages but it wasn’t until the mid-1650s that commercialized production really began. Molasses, which is a by-product of making sugar, can be used to make rum. This discovery created the “rum boom” of the early 1700s that led to a massive increase in the importation of slaves. The French capitalized on the lucrative molasses trade in the English Colonies, and Britain’s Sugar Act of 1764 was intended to inhibit that. This was one of many restrictions on trade and commerce that aggravated tensions between Britain and the colonists, eventually leading to the American Revolution.
The next few exhibits covered a wide range of topics, including the natural history of New York State as well as the Native Americans that once inhabited the area. The Iroquois, also known as the Six Nations, are comprised up of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora nations. They were a considerable presence in Canada and the Thirteen Colonies as they occupied a huge region in upstate New York, around the Great Lakes, and to the west of the Colonies. Relations with the Iroquois played a large part in political decisions as well as conflicts such as the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. In the museum’s exhibit, the staff had built a long house, which is the type of shelter the people of the Iroquois nation was known for making. It was an impressive, meticulously assembled structure that had obviously taken a lot of time to create.
As I was photographing the other artifacts, I noticed a man standing in front of a display of clay pots, holding what looked like another specimen. At first, I thought he worked at the museum and was replacing an item that had been removed for cleaning. When I asked him about it, he showed me a similar fragment of clay pottery with a small, carved design on it. He said that he found it in a farmer’s field, and he was trying to figure out which tribe it may have belonged too. After a final glance at the case, he shrugged, wished us a good day, and left.
The next exhibit was a large area dedicated to antebellum New York. New York had the largest slave population of any northern state during Colonial times. The rum boom and other economic demands in the early 1700s led to an increase in slave importation, and by 1750 there were more than 9,000 slaves in New York State, greater than any other state north of Maryland. Over the next 77 years, the abolition movement gained more and more traction. By 1800, a bill was passed in New York granting freedom to all female slaves born after 1799 by age of 25 and male slaves by age of 28. Slavery was officially abolished in NY on July 4th, 1827.
The Champlain and Erie Canals (and later, parallel railroads) were completed in 1823, and the new transportation corridor led to an explosion in Albany’s trade, economy, and population. 13,000 new residents per decade moved to Albany from 1820 to 1880. The sharp rise in demand for housing led to extremely close living quarters, particularly in poor immigrant neighborhoods. There were no regulations requiring certain standards of living, so in order to make a hefty profit, landlords would divide single-family homes into cramped housing for dozens of people. Those living in these conditions were mostly Irish immigrants, who suffered intense discrimination and horrible disease from living in these slums. Afflictions such as Cholera, Typhoid, and Dysentery were very common in these poor immigrant neighborhoods of the mid-1800s.
The remaining exhibits focused on the rise of New York City as a cultural and economic epicenter. In 1830, Delmonico’s in New York was the first restaurant to offer a menu full of items “a la carte” without any set mealtime. Its success fueled a new national past time of going out to dinner, which took off in the following decades. There was also an area devoted to 1920s and 30s Fifth Avenue complete with furniture, fashion, tableware, toys, glass, and silver in art deco style. Described as “Millionaire’s Row,” Fifth Avenue is more than a street in Manhattan; it is the pinnacle of the American luxury and style that New York City itself is most famous for. 
At the end of the exhibit dedicated to NYC, there was a room with remnants from the 9/11 Twin Towers attack. The artifacts included pieces of the buildings as well as a burned NYFD fire truck. I often think of 9/11 as my generation’s Pearl Harbor. I was only 6 when it happened, but I will remember that day for the rest of my life. It was not an easy exhibit to walk through, but I was glad that the state honored the memory of the victims by including a trailer full of photos and memories placed there by loved ones.
The last exhibit was by far my favorite. It was the smallest room of all, but it was packed with a collection of antique fire trucks. It was really cool to see all of the quirky machines that were once used to fight fire, and if you were interested in that sort of thing, I would definitely recommend a visit.
After a long visit to the museum, Rob and I trudged back to the car and drove toward the Capitol. The New York State House was one of the most expensive government buildings of its time, and the most expensive Capitol building in the United States, completed in 1899 to the tune of $25,000,000 dollars. That equals $500,000,000 today, which is even more expensive than the US Capitol building. New York’s is one of the few Capitols that does not have an exterior dome, and it is one of two Capitol buildings with a semi-gothic design.
Once again, we circled the building for several minutes looking for a parking space. We got lucky and found a spot right across the street, parked, and went inside. After complying with security measures, we went to the tours and information desk to pick up a self-guided pamphlet. We began by the Senate staircase, carefully reading all of the informative resources they had available. The stone staircase soared upward towards a massive skylight many floors above, with many Gothic styled carvings and gargoyle-like creatures adorning every arch and railing. It was truly beautiful, and I was beginning to understand why this building had been so expensive.
Next we went to the hall of flags, which is a feature in many other Capitols as well. This was a large room filled with battle flags stacked in glass cases, wrapped in protective cloths to prevent light damage. I was consistently impressed by the amount of educational displays giving all sorts of information about the history of the artifacts and the building. The trend continued as we entered the Governor’s Reception Room, which is home to one of the most impressive murals that we have seen on the trip so far. William De Leftwich Dodge was commissioned to paint murals that would illustrate the room’s military theme. They took 5 years to complete and were installed by Dodge and his assistant Melio Bellisio in 1929. The mural depicts many conflicts in our history, including those between different ethnicities in colonial times, such as Indian-French, French-Dutch, Dutch-English, and English-American. Some of the other panels show the first Five Iroquois Nations (Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca, Mohawk, and Cayuga), and others depict specific American battles like Gettysburg. The masterpiece is so large that it is difficult to photograph, so you definitely need to see it in person to truly get the full impression of it. This amazing mural makes up for the lack of other paintings throughout the building.
Next we went to the Hall of Governors and then to the Senate Chamber. We tried all of the doors in the gallery, but unfortunately, they were all locked. I managed to take a picture through the glass, but it definitely does not do it justice. Most Capitols leave the galleries unlocked during the day or provide some sort of viewing area inside the room so that the public can see it whenever they wish. I was disappointed that I was unable to see the room in all its grandeur, but luckily the General Assembly’s chamber was open. There was a sign in the gallery asking people not to take pictures of the congressman while they were in session, so I kept my lens angled above their heads. The room was beautifully decorated, one of the most beautiful chambers that I have seen so far. Wooden, carved arches connected all of the columns, and the designs on the walls were colorful and exquisite. This Capitol truly is the hall of arches. I hadn’t seen a single room without them!
Next we went to the Great Western Staircase, which is a massive, ornately carved staircase on the Capitol’s west end. On the lower floors of the staircase, workers were permitted to carve the faces of their family members and loved ones on the walls and corners of the staircase. Those faces are the most representative feature of any Capitol building that I have seen thus far, because they are literally the people of New York. So often there are portraits of Governors and Speakers, but there isn’t another Capitol that has the faces of its people carved into the walls. It is this staircase that solidifies New York’s Capitol as one of my top five favorite Capitol buildings. (It’s impossible to choose just one, they’re all so different and beautiful in their own way!)
Our last stop was at the legislative library, which can sometimes be one of the more ornate rooms in state Capitols. This library had some of the only other murals in the building besides the masterpiece in the Governor’s Reception Room. The ceiling was painted pale green, and three large chandeliers brightened the space. It was peaceful, but there weren’t very many actual books. The space is now largely used as office space, after a major fire in 1911 destroyed the library and most of the west end of the building.
We left the Capitol feeling as though we had learned more about the state of New York than we ever expected. Both the museum and the Capitol had the most extensive informative displays of any other state, and I could understand why the state had put so much effort into the museum to accompany a State House of this magnificence. Now I know how five architects could spend $25 million dollars by 1899 building this impressive structure, and it certainly paid off. This building will remain for centuries as a testament to New York and American history, just as with the ancients and their temples.

The next day we packed up our belongings, and drove to Hartford, Connecticut.