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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

December 4, 2013: Harrisburg Histories: The Capitol Building

[In October, I had the chance to visit Harrisburg (PA) for the first time, and to start to learn about the city’s rich and complex histories. This week, I’ll highlight five responses to some of what I encountered in Pennsylvania’s capitol city.]

On the incredibly lavish building that embodies a city’s contradictions—and what to do about it.
To use a current colloquialism that seems to be the best choice for the occasion, Harrisburg’s State Capitol building is cray cray. Designed in 1902, after the city’s longstanding first capitol building burned down (in 1897) and the very plain second was abandoned pre-completion (in 1899), the capitol has come to be known as a “palace of art” due to its numerous sculptures, murals, and stained-glass windows, as well as its stunning façade and 52-million pound (!) dome modeled on Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica. Frankly, none of that—nor noting that the building has been designated a National Historic Landmark—does full justice to the experience of seeing and exploring the building; it is, quite simply, the most lavish and overwhelming public building I’ve been in (and the closest I’ve felt, in the United States, to being inside the Vatican).
In 1906, the same year that the Capitol was completed, a newly elected State Treasurer began investigating allegations of graft in the building’s construction; the investigation would result, two years later, in numerous convictions, including of principal architect Joseph Miller Huston and multiple local and state officials. On one level, this scandal reflects quite concisely the lavish nature and Gilded Age context of the Capitol; but on another, it highlights a contradiction between the building as the impressive, inspiring symbol of a city and state and some of the less attractive economic and social realities that underlay it. And those contradictions are certainly just as present in 21st century Harrisburg, a city that still features (and often in promotional materials foregrounds) the Capitol in all its lavish splendor and that also filed for federal bankruptcy in 2011 and has continued to struggle with those financial and economic woes in the two years since.
So it’s fair to ask, un-AmericanStudies-like as this question might seem, whether the Capitol building should be taken apart and sold in order to make its city solvent once more. I’m not suggesting that the art and architecture be melted down or anything—I’m quite sure many museums and similar institutions would love to feature these items, and in so doing would be fulfilling their civic mission while the money might help Harrisburg and Pennsylvania better fulfill theirs. But just because that extreme response isn’t likely doesn’t mean that we can simply accept doing nothing as the only alternative. For example, currently admission to and tours of the Capitol are free, and I’m willing to bet tourists would pay (say) $5 each; the building is well worth it, and the funds could be directly used for Harrisburg’s vital and ongoing civic needs. In any case, the contradictions between the Capitol and the city are too overt, and too telling, to simply take as one more illustration of the Gilded Ages, then and now.
Next Harrisburg history tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

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