The bronze sculpture of a woman standing in the rotunda of the Illinois State Capitol welcomed us with open arms. She stands directly beneath a beautiful stained-glass dome that tops the building where Illinois law is proposed, debated and put to legislative vote. Taking a look around the Italian Renaissance Revival building, statues, paintings and ornate walls and ceilings surrounded us. To learn more about the art, architecture and what goes on in the capitol, we took the free half-hour tour.
The tour began in the Senate chambers where we took seats in the gallery overlooking the senate floor.
Our guide filled us in on several facts about the building and the legislators.
• Legislators are in session from January to May. We visited in May, and if we had been there the day before, we may have been able to see some action. But we were there on a Friday, and they usually take Mondays and Fridays off.
• All of the senators have their offices in the capitol. Some of the representatives do, too, but most are across the street in another building. There is a tunnel between the two buildings, so they don’t have to go out in the inclement weather.
• The capitol also houses the offices of the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Comptroller and Treasurer.
• The building was started in 1868, and it took twenty years to complete at a cost of $4.35 million. They came in under budget by $6.35. The dome is 361 feet high, 74 feet taller than the U.S. Capitol.
• There are 9,000 pieces of stained glass in the dome, with 42 different colors.
• The wood throughout the building is mahogany and walnut, and the marble is from the United States, Italy and Switzerland.
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• The bas relief sculptures on the Senate ceiling are painted with gold and bronze leaf.
• The European crystal chandeliers in both the Senate and House chambers, original to the building, are 17.5 feet tall, weigh 750 pounds each, and are hand-cranked down for their annual cleaning.
• The carpeting was milled on 150-year-old looms in England. The strips are 27” wide and look as if they were hand-stitched together.
Our next stop was the House Chambers, where a school group was taking a tour, sitting at the representatives’ desks, learning about the legislative process and voting in a mock election.
• The House of Representatives hears 6,000 bills a year. Of those 6,000 bills, 600 will pass from the House to the Senate. About 50 of the bills passed to the Senate will pass into law.
• Voting is done electronically. Each representative has a block on his or her desk with several buttons used to call his or her page; to turn on the mic; and to vote yes, no or present (abstain). The number of the bill is listed on an electronic screen, as are the names of the representatives and a colored dot that corresponds with how they vote. A video screen shows whoever is speaking.
A fun bit of trivia: The movie, Legally Blonde2, was filmed in the Illinois House chambers. The U.S. Capitol wasn’t available, and this one resembled the U.S. Capitol more closely than any other in the country.
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Following our tour of the House chambers, we stopped at three floors of the rotunda, where our guide pointed out various architectural features, as well as paintings and statues, telling us about their historical significance.
Our last stop was the Old Supreme Courtroom. The Illinois Supreme Court moved to its own building in 1908 because the room was too small. Today the ornately decorated room is used as a senate committee hearing room.
After the tour you may wander about, if you’d like, in any of the public areas. You can go back to read inscriptions on the artwork or take photos you may not have had time to take during the tour. But if you visit, do take the tour. It will help you to understand the significance of much of the art work.
The Illinois State Capitol is located at 410 Second Street in Springfield, Illinois. Free tours begin every half hour. Check the web site for hours and other details.
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Disclosure: My visit to Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site was hosted by the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, but any opinions expressed in this post are my own.