Michigan State Capitol Tour
May 6, 2022
By David Smitherman
The Michigan State Capitol is located in Lansing near the center of the lower peninsula of Michigan with major borders along Lake Michigan to the west and Lake Huron to the east. The capitol is located in downtown Lansing on park-like grounds known as Capitol Square, Figures 1 through 3.
The Michigan State Capitol was built in 1872–1878 after the Civil War and designed in a Neoclassical, Italianate, and Renaissance Revival architectural styles, Figure 2. It feature symmetrical wings and a dome deliberately designed to be similar to the Nation’s capitol building in Washington DC. The designer for the project was Elijah E. Meyers, 1832–1909, an upcoming architect at the time that gained fame by winning the competition for the capitol design in 1872. His success led to commissions for the capitol buildings in Colorado, Texas, and the Idaho Territory.
The capitol construction has thick solid load-bearing brick walls with a limestone exterior cladding, and interior cast iron columns and beams supporting the floors, roof, and dome.
Of particular note is that Elijah Meyers’ design came in within budget with no major issues or scandals associated with the construction, which had not been the case with some capitol projects in other states. He accomplished this through the practical selection of reasonably priced materials and artisans from local and regional sources. An interior restoration was completed in 1992, and an exterior restoration was completed in 2016, so that today the capitol can be seen in all its beauty as it was in 1878, Figure 4. It is widely known as a masterpiece of the painted decorative arts because the interior uses low-cost materials like pine, plaster, and cast iron, that was painted in detail to look like walnut, limestone, and marble. The restoration was successful in duplicating that original effect.
The Michigan State Capitol is the third capitol building in Michigan. Figure 5 shows drawings of all three capitols including the drawing of the original winning entry by Elijah Meyers that was constructed and completed in 1879. The first capitol building was the territorial courthouse in Detroit and then designated the capitol when Michigan became a state in 1837. When the capitol moved to Lansing in 1847 it was used as a school house until it burned in 1893. The second capitol was built in Lansing so it would be closer to the center of the state and further away from the British on the other side of the Detroit River. It was used as the capitol until the completion of the current capitol in 1879. It was then used for offices and manufacturing until it burned in 1882.
The front entrance to the capitol is on the east side and includes a Pediment above the Portico with a relief sculpture designed in 1876 by Herman Wehner, 1848–1921, and Lewis T. Ives, 1833–1894. It is titled “The Rise and Progress of Michigan”, and depicts a Native American woman laying down arms at her feet and embracing figures on each side representing science, education, agriculture, commerce, and industry, Figure 6. Herman Wehner was the sculptor and produced the first design, and Lewis Ives was the artist that provided an update to that design, which Wehner produced as the final product.
The front Portico includes a grand staircase up to the first floor entrance and a balcony from the Governor’s office suite on the second floor. The visitor entrance now uses a ground floor entrance under the staircase.
The capitol dome was constructed of cast iron and modeled after the National capitol building in Washington D.C., Figure 8. The overall building design with its dome was so popular that it soon became a model for many capitol buildings across the country.
Inside the capitol the ground floor was originally designed for storage and an armory, so it lacks the decor of the upper floors. It was remodeled to maintain that simplicity and today is used as the primary visitor entrance to improve security, provide handicap access and a Visitor Center with supporting accommodations and gathering spaces for large tour groups, Figures 9–10.
The gathering space under the Rotunda, Figure 10, features the thick solid-brick load-bearing walls around the perimeter that have been plastered and scored to simulate limestone blocks, and the floor of the Rotunda above features glass tiles supported by cast iron columns and beams.
The first floor includes the main formal entrances to the Rotunda and halls lined with offices supporting the House and Senate, Figure 11.
The Rotunda features a “Battle Flag Collection” from the Civil War, Figure 12.
The dome above the Rotunda is above the fourth floor and includes the “Gallery of Governors” on the second and third levels and a collection of muses above the fourth floor, Figure 13.
Access to the upper floors is by two grand staircases and elevators on the north and south wings just outside the Rotunda, Figure 14.
The second floor includes the offices of the Governor, former Supreme Court Chambers, and the House and Senate Chambers, Figure 15.
The Governor’s office is on the east wing, second floor, with access to the entrance portico balcony and supporting executive offices above on the third floor. The walls of the Rotunda outside the Governor’s office on the second and third floor feature the “Gallery of the Governors” with a portrait of those that have served Michigan, Figure 16.
On the west wing is the chambers of the Michigan Supreme Court, which was used from 1879 to 1970. It has been beautifully restored and is noted to have been one of the rooms that the architect Elijah Meyers gave personal attention to the decorative detailing, Figure 17. Today the judiciary resides in a new building at the opposite end of the pedestrian mall about a half mile to the west of the capitol.
The north wing includes the House Chambers, Figure 18, with a public viewing gallery accessible from the third floor, Figure 19. The original desks from 1878 were restored and adapted to electronic technology for all 110 members.
Some of the doors include the original door hardware as does this one at the entrance to the House Chambers, Figure 19. The hardware includes the Michigan Coat of Arms on the door knob, which was designed in 1835 by General Lewis Cass, 1782–1866, the former governor of the Michigan Territory.
The south wing includes the Senate Chambers, Figure 20, and a public viewing gallery accessible from the third floor, Figure 21. As done in the House Chambers, the desks have been restored for all 38 members. The architect, Elijah Meyers is noted to have designed all of the desks and rostrums for the Supreme Court, House, and Senate Chambers.
The ceiling above the House and Senate chambers includes glass panels that have been etched to include the Seal of the United States and all the States and Territories, Figures 20 and 21. The panels are backlit from skylights to provide natural lighting into both Chambers.
The third floor provides access to the House public gallery in the north wing and the Senate public gallery in the south wing and the House and Senate Appropriations Committee rooms, Figure 22. The fourth floor has construction in progress with limited access only to the balconies overlooking the Rotunda.
Figure 23 includes views across the Rotunda to the House Appropriations Committee room and the dome above.
Figure 24 includes views across the Rotunda from the fourth floor balcony, the first, second, and third floors below, and the dome above.
The dome above the fourth floor has eight muses by Thommaso Juglaris, 1844–1925, an Italian artist, Figures 25 and 26. The muses depict allegorical figures from Greek and Roman mythology representing various aspects of life in Michigan, including law, science, justice, industry, commerce, education, art, and agriculture.
The capitol grounds are known as Capitol Square where several monuments and historical buildings are of interest, including the cornerstone at the northeast corner depicting the dates of construction, 1872–1878, Figure 27. The west half of Capitol Square was not accessible due to ongoing construction, which will include a parking garage, visitor center, and a new geothermal power system designed to supply clean power to the capitol complex.
Figure 28 provides images of the three sculptural monuments on Capitol Square. They are Austin Blair, 1818–1894, Governor during the Civil War, by Edward Clark Potter, 1895; First Michigan Sharpshooters, a memorial to those that served in the Civil War, 1861–1865, by Frank D. Black, 1915; and the Spanish War Veterans Memorial, 1898–1902, by Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson, 1946.
Facing Capitol Square are several historical buildings of interest. Central Methodist Episcopal Church, designed in a Richardsonian Romanesque architectural style by Elijah Meyers and Lee Black, 1889, Figure 29.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, designed in a Late Gothic Revival architectural style by White and Butterworth Architects, 1914, Figure 30.
Capitol Bank Tower, designed in an Art Deco Skyscraper architectural style, by Hopkins and Dentz, 1931, Figure 31.
The tour was taken during travel from Huntsville to Boston on May 6, 2022, Figures 31 and 32. All of the exterior photographs were taken during a light drizzling rain, it rained all day. The best time to visit would probably be June, in better weather, after the capitol grounds have been planted with their summer flowers and the construction on the west side is complete, probably summer 2023. The interior is open, and masks are optional, Figure 20, as I still wear mine inside buildings and crowded spaces.
The trip from Huntsville to Boston was done over three days with overnight stays in Fort Wayne Indiana, and Buffalo New York. My transportation this time was a loaner car from Tesla, provided free while they did warranty work on my Model 3. It was a 2017 Model S, which is larger than the Model 3 and provides a slightly smoother ride. It was not a long range model, which meant I had to spend a little more time at charging stations, but the charging was free, a nice bonus that comes with the older Model S and X vehicles.
If you are interested in art, architecture, and the history of our country I’d certainly recommend this tour.
References: Photographs and charts by David Smitherman, and data collected from onsite inscriptions and brochures, Wikipedia, and Google Maps. Additional information was found online at: https://www.legislature.mi.gov/Publications/MichiganStateCapitol.pdf, https://www.senate.michigan.gov/history/pediment/wehnerives.htm, and http://capitol.michigan.gov/ArtGuide