Capitol Punishment?

Thursday, November 01, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Westward Ho, Day 11:  Bismarck, ND

After ten days on the road, we decided to take a pause in Bismarck, staying three nights and indulging in some down time interspersed with light sightseeing.  After spending this morning in our room, we headed over to the North Dakota statehouse, our third state capitol building on this trip.  Unlike when we entered the Kansas and South Dakota capitols and both spontaneously exclaimed, "Wow!", at the Bismarck facility, all we could muster was a puzzled, "Oh."

North Dakota's first seat of government, which had also served as territorial capitol before statehood, was a brick and wood structure built in 1883 and consumed by fire in 1930.  Legend has it that the fire started in a janitorial closet from oily rags used to polish legislators' desks in anticipation of a new session.

Artist rendering of the original capitol burning
In the midst of the Great Depression, the state was faced with the costly task of building a new statehouse.  To help defray construction costs, a decision was made to sell half the 320-acre campus which railroad companies had donated for the capitol grounds.  Since the grounds had been reduced, planners decided to build the capitol up.  Perhaps inspired by the recently completed Chrysler Building, a 19-story Art Deco tower was planned by a pair of North Dakota architects in conjunction with a noted Chicago firm.

Unlike Mr. Chrysler, whose deep pockets funded the beautiful terraced crown and elaborate Art Deco interior details of the New York skyscraper, North Dakota's government was operating with limited resources.  Much of the Art Deco ornamentation and embellishment included in the design by the Chicago architects were slashed from building plans with the budgetary knife.  What remained was an unadorned stone and concrete tower for the executive branch of the government attached to an austere three-story legislative wing.  (A judicial wing was added in the 1980s.)

North Dakota State Capitol
North Dakotan parsimony didn't stop with the design.  Construction workers, reputedly employed by the WPA (Works Progress Administration) were paid only 30 cents an hour at a time when hourly wages for most skilled laborers were twice that amount.  After multiple worker strikes for a wage increase, the governor imposed martial law to compel the construction workers to return to the job, finally conceding a 20 cents an hour increase to facilitate completion of the building.

The final cost of the "skyscraper on the prairie," as it has often been described, was slightly under the $2 million dollar budget, or 46 cents  per cubic foot.  And as our tour guide Darlene emphasized proudly, the building contains 80 percent usable space.  She contrasted this to the wasted space taken up by the large dome in the Minnesota capitol.  Only later did we learn why North Dakota's neighbor to the east had been singled out for its frivolous design.

Minnesota State Capitol
It seems that in the midst of a debate over funding needed for renovations to the Minnesota state capitol in April of this year, Minnesota legislator Matt Dean poked fun at the plainness of the North Dakota capitol:  "Wisconsin has a pretty nice capitol," Dean said. "Iowa has a fairly nice capitol. North Dakota, I mean my goodness grief. Has anybody seen North Dakota's capitol?  It's like State Farm Insurance called; they want their office building back. I mean, it's terrible. It's embarrassing."

North Dakota's Governor Dalrymple shot back, describing the capitol in Bismarck as a classic example of Chicago skyscraper design and suggesting that people who don't appreciate it don't know much about architecture.

What remains after the dust settles is a striking difference in architectural style.  Though we were unable to visit the Minnesota capitol because we were in St. Paul on a Sunday, the exterior tells us all we need to know about its similarities to the Bismarck complex.  And the North Dakotan capitol is unique in the statehouses we have visited recently in terms of its simplicity.

Main (no longer used) entrance to North Dakota Capitol
The simple but elegant main entrance to the North Dakota capitol has been locked tight ("We closed those doors after 9/11."), and now employees and visitors enter through the utilitarian porte-cochère on the ground floor.  One would think that in the last eleven years, this new all-purpose entrance would have been made a bit more attractive, but then would North Dakota really want to spend money for something so frivolous?  Apparently not.

While other statehouses are teeming with symbolic statuary and other decorative fixtures, the North Dakota self-guided tour brochure points out the capitol's few highlights:

The figures above the no-longer-functioning main entrances, a farmer and a miner, represent the two major industries of North Dakota.

Raised sculptures on the bronze tower elevator doors depict "the pioneer experience" and are cited as an Art Deco focal point.

The highlight of Memorial Hall at the main floor's former entrance is a 40-ft ceiling. The twelve-foot light fixtures represent heads of wheat.

Legislative Hall plays host to a series of inlaid canopies overhanging upholstered wall seats, providing just the spot for lawmakers to convene informally.

The chamber of the House of Representatives features walls covered with American chestnut.  The legislature meets for no more than 80 days every other year.  The Senate chamber is similar to the house but has a dark red color scheme rather than the blue.

Perhaps because legislators spend only 80 days every two years at the statehouse, North Dakota decision makers did not see fit to provide offices for these elected officials.  Instead, each is given a locking drawer at his or her seat in the chamber.

"Welcome to my office."
If that's your office, it's not likely that you'll have too large a staff as a member of the North Dakota legislature, which, of course, is another cost saving.

At the top of the capitol tower, which happens to be the tallest building in North Dakota, is an observation deck, providing a panoramic view of the city of Bismarck and beyond, a perfect vantage point for a photo op.

Capitol grounds from the 18th floor
This perspective provided the perfect viewpoint for a photographer to record an event our tour guide described with pride.  On February 17, 2007, the good folks of North Dakota, including our tour guide Darlene, organized to create 8,962 simultaneous snow angels on the state Capitol ground, gaining them a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Snow angels on the lawn
A photo of this event is proudly displayed in the observation tower and on the state government web site.  No doubt the state found a photographer who recorded the scene gratis.

In case you're wondering how all this frugality benefits the good people of North Dakota, consider this.  The state's budget surplus recently spiked to $1.6 billion.  Yes, you read that correctly.  In an era when many state governments are laboring under crushing deficits, North Dakota, with one of the nation's lowest unemployment rates (3.5%), is enjoying an explosive growth in sales tax revenues, thanks to increased oil production and, of course, controlled spending.  That excess does not include a special Legacy Fund, the receptacle for 30% of oil and gas tax dollars.  With very strict expenditure guidelines and limits, that fund is also expected to exceed $1 billion by year's end and much more by the time any of the monies are spent.

Evidence of citizens' attitude toward spending limits is reflected in the voter-approved constitutional amendment that established the Legacy Fund in 2010.  Not only is the legislature prohibited from spending any Legacy revenues before 2017, once they dip into the fund, lawmakers may not tap more than 15 percent of the fund principal over any two-year period.  Now, that's controlled spending.

As we have observed at the other statehouses we have had the pleasure to visit, these seats of government provide a unique insight into the character of the state and what its people value.  North Dakota's capitol was no different.  This is a state where the benefits of prudence and hard work are appreciated and capitalized to great advantage, living proof of Benjamin Franklin's adage:  "The way to wealth depends on just two words, industry and frugality."

Daily Stats:
  • Miles driven:  10
  • Letterboxes:  F 0, P 0
  • Weather:  Sunny, 28° to 39°
  • States:  1 (ND)
  • Decorative features in ND capitol:  5
  • Wasted space in ND capitol:  very little
  • Employees walking for exercise inside capitol:  48

Trip Stats:
  • Miles:  2,820
  • Gallons of gas:  125
  • Letterboxes:  F 26, P 6
  • States:  11 (GA, SC, NC, TN, KY, IL, MO, KS, NE, SD, ND)
  • Coldest temp:  25, Topeka,KS (Oct. 27)
  • Hottest temp:  80, Gaffney, SC (Oct. 22)
  • Gas price extremes:  $3.30 in Topeka to $3.95 in Lincolnton, NC
  • National battlefields:  3
  • National historic sites:  3
  • State capitols: 3
  • State parks & historic sites:  5