Capitol Punishment?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|
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|
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|
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|
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:
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."|
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|
|Snow angels on the lawn|
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."
- 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
- 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