A State of Confusion

Monday, May 20, 2013 Road Junkies 0 Comments

ATLANTA, Georgia —After wandering into the Missouri statehouse in Jefferson City last September, we have sought out opportunities to explore state capitol buildings in our travels.  Last year we logged visits to ten statehouses, ruing the many chances we squandered before discovering how fascinating these seats of government can be.  We passed through the capital cities of at least 17 other states in 2012 and within 50 miles of numerous other capitals without ever considering a stop at the statehouse.

Now that we know better and since our travels this year have been somewhat limited by family needs, we decided it was time we visited the capitol of our own state.  Considering we lived for 25 years in an Atlanta house less than four miles from this esteemed building, we were quite overdue.  We waited until the annual 40-day legislative term ended in late March, which greatly facilitated our ability to find parking nearby.

Georgia State Capitol, eastern view (rear of building)
On this Monday morning in May, we found parking readily enough in a lot designated for lawmakers during the session and walked across the street to experience the image our statehouse is presenting to visitors.  As expected, we were subjected to a security screening before being allowed to enter.  The guard was friendly and personable.  After examining our photo IDs (the first state that has asked us to produce such), he chatted amiably with us about our home city before offering a few tips to guide our visit.  Positive first impression.

Since we entered from the rear of the building, our first stop was the ground floor, where we encountered a most unusual display—a recently recovered and highly prized piece of Georgia history on exhibit.  During the War of 1812, Georgian Lt. Col. Daniel Appling distinguished himself in the 15-minute Battle of Big Sandy Creek in upstate New York by leading an ambush attack on a superior force of British pursuing his troops.  Months later, the Georgia General Assembly commissioned a ceremonial sword of honor to be presented to Appling in recognition of his courage and ingenuity.  Unfortunately, the colonel died before he could receive the tribute, and legislators decided to retain the sword and display it in the governor’s office.

A costly exhibit
After languishing in obscurity for nearly a century, the sword again became the center of attention as another legislature proudly sent the tribute and other treasured artifacts to be displayed in the Georgia exhibit at the 1906 Jamestown Exposition, a historic event commemorating the 300th anniversary of  the first permanent English settlement in the Virginia Colony.  Though there is no evidence to explain why, the sword was never returned after the exposition closed.  More than a century later, state archives officials, who had long pondered the weapon's fate, saw it advertised for sale in an antiques magazine in 2010.  Historical organizations and private citizens raised more than $100,000 to purchase the relic from a Pennsylvania antiques dealer and bring it home to Georgia.

Other exhibits on the ground floor portrayed scenes from various geographical regions of Georgia.  These appeared to date from the 1970s or so and looked as if they hadn't had much attention since then.  They badly need some TLC.

Georgia Capitol Dome interior
Moving up to the main floor, we had our first view of the rotunda and the very disappointing interior of the capitol dome.  Not only did this prominent architectural feature have no decorative design, the paint was peeling badly (while $100K was splurged on an old sabre!).  Contrast this dowdy unimaginative structure to some of the stunning dome interiors we saw in state capitols last year.

Clockwise from top left:  Washington, Missouri, Kansas, Oregon, Oklahoma, New Mexico, California, South Dakota (Georgia in center)
Sadly, the disappointment did not stop there.  The Georgia capitol building is like an old home where nothing is ever removed.  More stuff is just added.  There's no revisionism here.  All aspects of state history are revered, no matter how misguided retrospection reveals some of the causes that are still celebrated.

For example, Tom Watson, a nineteenth century legislator and journalist who was a vigorous antisemitic, anti-Catholic racist, is honored with a 12-foot bronze statue at the main entrance of the Capitol.  The statue's pedestal bears this tribute:  "A champion of right who never faltered in the cause."  Since Watson was an advocate of lynching and the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, this honorific begs the question of what the 'cause' was for which his steadfastness is praised.

Schoolchildren pass a statue honoring Tom Watson to enter their state's capitol.
Inside the halls of the capitol, portraits of Georgians who served prominently in the Confederacy are interspersed with tributes to more recent state heroes such as Martin Luther King, Jr.  Jimmy Carter, the only Georgia native to serve as President of the United States (and, incidentally, governor of the state), is honored with a small life-size statue in a side garden near a poorly rendered replica of the Statue of Liberty donated by boy scouts in 1951.  As befitted his preference for informality, Carter is depicted in casual attire.

No doubt the Presidential seal halo effect is just a coincidence.
The fourth floor of the Georgia capitol building is described as the Georgia State Museum.  We found that to be a bit of a stretch.  Less like a stately government repository than a run-down flea market, the "museum" is crammed with a mishmash of odd artifacts and specimens dragged from some old attic or barn.  Perhaps nothing portrays this better than the two-headed calf head, mounted on a plaque, no less.

The favorite exhibit of many a school child who visited the capitol on a field trip.
Begun in 1896, the state museum opened with items from the previous year's Cotton States Exposition displayed in corridors of the statehouse.  The popularity of these exhibits led to the addition of more memorabilia, creating an eclectic assortment of artifacts, geologic materials, firearms and other assorted detritus.  The exhibit cases appear to date from the early days of this collection.

Exhibit cases which would be right at home in any antique flea market
In the late 1990s, the Georgia capitol building underwent a massive restoration, a project that sought to return the interior to its appearance soon after its original completion in 1889.  Untold thousands were frittered away to identify the building's authentic historic paint colors, only to allow the paint to chip away within 15 years.  The capitol needs a serious updating guided by the hands of professional archivists who will organize portraiture in logical historical sequence, downplay the glorification of the Confederacy, and add dignity to exhibits by eliminating sensationalist oddities.

As the eighth most populous state and one of the original thirteen colonies, Georgia has produced some notable and notorious characters. We need a statehouse which focuses on positive aspects of Georgia such as the accomplishments of the home-grown Carter and King Centers rather than the current miasma that is designed to pander to those who love Honey Boo Boo.  At least her portrait hasn't made its way to the halls of the statehouse...yet.

Georgia Capitol Stats:

  • Atlanta metro population:  5.3 million (most populous state capitol metro)
  • Built:  1884-1889
  • Cost:  $999,882 (slightly under $1 million budget)
  • Architectural style:  Classical Renaissance
  • Dome surface:  23 k Georgia gold
  • Exterior:  Indiana limestone
  • Building height:  272 ft (to top of dome)
  • Taller buildings than capitol in Atlanta, 1889:  0
  • Taller buildings than capitol in Atlanta, 2013:  60
  • Statue on top of dome:  Goddess of Liberty (aka, Miss Freedom)
  • Conjoined animals on exhibit in capitol:  2 (calf and snake)

More Georgia Capitol Photos

Statues of Senator Richard Russell (L) and Civil War era Governor Joseph Brown and his wife
Capitol dome covered with gold leaf from metal mined in Georgia.
Often the scene of protests and speeches, the Georgia capitol is nicknamed the People's House.
Main entrance to the Georgia capitol
(When I walked across the street to take this photo, I was approached by a homeless man offering me a well-worn pastry.)
Georgia founder James Oglethorpe overlooks the grand staircase in the north wing.
A skylight added to the floor of the rotunda to illuminate offices on the floor below.
Replica of Miss Freedom (crowning statue of the dome)