Compound Capital

Monday, December 03, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Westward Ho, Day 30: Seattle, WA, to Chehalis, WA

Leaving Seattle today, we drove 60 miles south along I-5 to Olympia (pop. 46,478), Washington's capital city.  Unlike most states, Washington does not have a Capitol building.  Rather the domed statehouse is called the Legislative Building, part of the state's Capitol Campus, which also includes the Temple of Justice, housing the state's Supreme Court, legislative and executive office buildings, and the governor's mansion.

Legislative Building in Washington's Capitol Campus
On our guided tour of the building, we learned that Washington, the only state named for a U.S. President, was intended to have a different name.  Originally part of the Oregon Territory, settlers north of the Columbia River petitioned for autonomy from Oregon.  The river split the territory in half, and its width and tumultuous currents made for treacherous travel between the northern and southern parts of this frontier area.  Congress approved settlers' proposal for a separate territory in 1853, but the request to call the new territory Columbia, after the river that inspired its creation, was denied due to concerns that the territory, and later state, would be confused with the District of Columbia.  A Kentucky Congressman suggested that the territory be named for George Washington instead, and after some debate, the Washington Territory was authorized by Congress.

Washington Capitol Dome
As the largest city in the new territory, with 300 residents, Olympia was selected as the capital.  The city's founder donated a choice twelve-acre hilltop plot for the construction of a seat of government. By 1889, when the territory's petition for statehood was approved, the government had outgrown the original two-story wood frame statehouse.  President Benjamin Harrison donated 132,000 acres of federal land to the new state, stipulating that timber on the land be sold to fund the construction of a state capitol building.


A nationwide economic depression in 1890 delayed construction of the new statehouse, which was not completed until 1928.  Thanks to the foresight of President Harrison, the state was able to build the capitol without going into debt.

The masonry dome rises 287 feet, making it the tallest self-supporting masonry dome in the United States and one of the tallest in the world.  Three sets of massive bronze doors mark the entrance to the building. Weighing 5,000 pounds each, the doors are decorated with bas-relief scenes from early Washington history.

One of three sets of entrance doors
Gracing the rotunda is 'Angels of Mercy,' a 10,000-lb. Tiffany chandelier, held up by a 1.5-ton chain.  Suspended 50 feet above the floor, the fixture measures 25 feet tall and features life-size human faces and figures. According to legend, a Volkswagen Beetle could fit into the chandelier, though there was no indication this had ever been tested.

Louis Comfort Tiffany's design requires 202 bulbs.
On the second floor is a brass bust of George Washington, the state's namesake.  Over time, George's nose has been burnished to a shine by the many visitors who believe that rubbing the nose (or ear or toe) of a statue will bring them good luck.

Wonder whether George realized his nose was lucky?
Both the Senate and House chambers are located in the Legislative Building on opposite sides of the rotunda.  Designers went a little extreme on symbolism in the carpet for these rooms.  Because the Senate is considered the higher of the two legislative chambers, its carpet features dogwood flowers, which grow in trees.  Carpet for the lowly House of Representatives is dotted with trillium blooms, a ground level wildflower.

Senate Chamber from the gallery
We happened to be visiting the Legislative Building on the day that the holiday tree was being raised.  Some of Santa's elves decorated the upper reaches of the 25-ft. noble fir before helpers with ropes tugged from the upper floors around the rotunda to pull the tree erect.  After 5,000 lights and other decorations are added, a public lighting ceremony will be held on Friday.

Raising of the tree
Washington's statehouse is a marble marvel.  The interior features marble from various parts of the United States and Europe.  The dominant color in public corridors is gray, which lacks warmth and lends a very formal air to the building.  Upper reaches of the rotunda incorporate shades of pink, belatedly softening the impact of so much gray.  Though the volunteer guide was enthusiastic and informative, we found the building to be one of the less impressive statehouses we have visited and not a very apt representation of the state.

Washington Capitol Stats:

  • Built:  1922-28
  • Construction cost:  $7.4 million
  • Building height:  287 ft.
  • Size:  250,000 square feet
  • Weight of dome:  33,000,000 pounds
  • Tiffany light fixtures in building:  438