Under the Dome Visiting Northwest State Capitols

by Heather Larson

Until last year, I had never toured any of the buildings where the gears of state and provincial government turn. But I’ve always been enamored by capital cities-places that typically gleam with civic pride, offer inviting downtown areas and have a relatively peaceful air about them. Plus, seeing that dome towering over the city always gives me goose bumps, reminding me how fortunate I am to have the freedoms I do. 

When I finally decided to see what was underneath those magnificent domes, I chose Boise, Salem, Olympia and Victoria. All four Capitols welcome guests and, when their legislatures or parliaments are in session, invite you to observe the proceedings. These tours make excellent and educational family outings that leave an impression on every generation from kids on up, and give you plenty to discuss in the car on the way home.

Olympia, Washington

The Washington State Legislative Building, completed in 1928 and first occupied in 1929, serves as the working governmental center and the centerpiece of five historic buildings on the Capitol campus, including the Governor’s Mansion and the Temple of Justice. While the legislative processes are fascinating, what got my attention on my visit to Washington’s Capitol was the abundance of Tiffany glass. As it turns out, this building holds the largest collection of glass made by Louis Comfort Tiffany anywhere.

The building’s grand Tiffany treasure is the main decorative chandelier, featuring Greco-Roman stylized figures, dangling high above the rotunda floor by a 3,000-pound chain. To best view it, go to the fourth floor. This massive, 10,000-pound chandelier originally arrived in pieces by train and was assembled on the rotunda floor, before being hoisted into place.

Besides housing the largest chandelier ever made by Tiffany, the Capitol dome, at 287-feet tall, is one of the tallest masonry domes in North America. Massive concrete arches carry the weight of both the exterior and interior domes. The lower portions of these arches are covered with Alaskan Tokeen marble, the same marble used in most of the public spaces.

In 1889, Washington became the 42nd state admitted to the Union. Salem, Oregon 

The Legislative Building is located at 416 Sid Snyder Avenue SW. Guided tours are on a first-come, first-served basis: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (every hour on the hour). Self-guided tours are welcome anytime during the above hours. Visit ga.wa.gov\visitor or visitolympia.org for more information.

Salem, Oregon

Salem is one of the few Capitols in the United States without a dome. Instead, it boasts a Greek revival design with a drum tower topped by a gilded bronze statue called the Golden Pioneer, a likeness that represents all early pioneers in Oregon. The statue weighs 8.5 tons and has had four applications of gold leaf, which make it highly reflective.

Guided tours of the tower are available and, when actually completed, qualify you to buy at-shirt from the gift shop that says “I Survived the Tower Tour.” That’s because you’ll climb 121 steps of marble, concrete and metal and navigate several catwalks and ramps.

This Capitol is the third building at the same location. The first, a small wooden structure, burned down, and in 1876 a new building was erected. Although not built from wood, that building also burned down in 1935. The building you’ll tour was completed in 1938, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

As you tour the building, note the colorful murals, illustrating events in Oregon history, surrounded by polished marble on the rotunda floor. They include Captain Robert Gray at the mouth of the Columbia River, Lewis and Clark on their way to the Pacific Ocean, the first women to cross the continent by covered wagon and the first wagon train migration in 1843.

In 1859, Oregon was the 33rd state admitted to the Union. The Capitol is located at 900 Court St. NE. Guided tours are every hour on the hour, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday. Tower tours are 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday- Friday. Call 503-986-1388 to schedule a tour. For more information about visiting the Oregon Capitol, go to leg.state.or.uslcapinfo, travelsalem.com 

Boise, Idaho

The Idaho Capitol is known as “The People’s House.” That’s because everyone who works at the Idaho Capitol, from the governor to the legislators to the volunteers, wants Idaho residents and anyone else visiting to consider this building their house for the time they are there. Every part of the building is open to visitors. If you pop into the Capitol Dining Room for breakfast or lunch while the legislature is in session, usually between January and April, you can easily engage a senator or a representative in conversation.

With the building exterior clad in local Idaho sandstone, an interior finished in marble, and a graceful dome that rises 202 feet above the city, the Idaho Capitol is stately indeed. To begin the tour, pick up a self-guided booklet at the gift shop where you’ll want to return to do a little shopping after your tour. The building first opened for business in

1912 and the most recent renovation was completed in 2010. You’ll begin your visit on the Garden Level and Atrium Wings and continue through four more floors. 

The Atrium Wings house glass skylights running the length of the central corridors and give you a view of the dome. The building was dubbed the “Capitol of Light” because the original designer, John Tourtellotte, employed light shafts, skylights and reflective marble surfaces to capture natural sunlight. To him, light represented an enlightened and moral state government. This light theme has survived through two renovations.

In 1890, Idaho became the 43rd state admitted to the Union. The Capitol is located at 707 West Jefferson St., and is open 6 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday- Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Self-guided tours are allowed during open hours. Guided tours are available for 10 or more with two weeks notice. For information about visiting, go to legislature. idaho.govlcapitollcapitol_ building.htm; or boise.org. Call 208-332- 1012 to schedule a guided group tour. 

Victoria, BC

For U.S. citizens, visiting the Parliament Building, officially called the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, in Victoria, is an education in governmental structure and procedures different from those at home. For Canadians, it’s a source of pride and an opportunity to increase awareness of their history and legislative proceedings.

Stepping into the Parliament Buildings today, it’s difficult to believe that the structures endured 70 years of neglect. In the early 1970s a painstaking restoration occurred that lasted 10 years. Every effort was made to use original or historically appropriate materials.

The daring Renaissance-style central dome, towering above the harbour, is octagonal, as opposed to the more popular, round neo- Classical domes of the period. On its top stands a gold-plated, two- metre tall statue of Captain George Vancouver. Including the central dome above the rotunda, 33 copper domes of different sizes adorn the roof. Each night, more than 3,500 energy-efficient bulbs illuminate the magnificent structure, a dazzling nighttime fixture of the Inner Harbour cityscape.

While you’re in the building, treat yourself to breakfast or lunch in the Legislative Dining Room for a casual and quiet atmosphere and a meal by Parliament’s award-winning chef. For access to the dining room, stop at the Legislative Security Desk for a pass. Besides simply touring the building, enrich your visit by observing the proceedings and debates from the Public Galleries when the Legislative Assembly is sitting.

In 1871, British Columbia became the sixth province of Canada. The Parliament Buildings are located at 501 Belleville Street, on Victoria’s Inner Harbour. Free guided tours are on a first-come, first-served basis: g a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday, and in summer seven days a week. Self- guided tours are allowed anytime during the above hours. Visit leg.be.cal info/2-2. htm or tourismvictoria. com for more information.