Gilded but accessible, stoically nonpartisan, grand but utilitarian, the state Capitol turns 100 years old this year.
These haven’t been easy years for a building that has never taken a day off but was built for full-time work under all conditions.
Lightning has targeted “Wisconsin,” the statue flaked with gold and coiffed with a wary-looking badger 284 feet 5 inches above the ground floor. Peregrine falcons also scratch the statue, which has been frequently misidentified as “Forward” and, worse, “Mrs. Rennebohm.”
Yet the badger hat and all below it have endured since 1917 as this state’s focal point and it is time to celebrate that birthday. The occupants change constantly, but the building does not.
The Capitol is more than a collection of 43 kinds of stone gathered from eight states and six countries, protected by the only granite dome in the country. Those are cold facts, available from dozens of official sources and internet archives documenting every paint chip and mosaic square and sculptor’s chip in detail. From a physical standpoint, it is a complex edifice.
Fondly recounted are the sort of stories that present the Capitol as the chief memory-maker in the state. Just seven days ago, 100,000 people — many wearing pink hats, carrying signs and looking for a bathroom — walked around and through the Capitol on their way to new memories and thousands of Facebook posts.
These people were embraced, and guided, counterclockwise of course, by this century-old stone garden of democracy.
Those are its most valuable qualities, what it does best: Welcome, shelter, encourage, direct, impose authenticity via a gray gravity but also mainly as an objective modifier. It is the unmoving frame for memories crowded by hard facts of history.
Which means context. The building provides context for the city and the state.
The people marching to the Capitol last week, part of a worldwide Women’s March, for example, were in empathetic, historic company. The Wisconsin Women’s Suffrage Association and its campus group held weekly demonstrations at the Capitol in 1919, and on June 10 of that year, Wisconsin became the first state to ratify the 19th Amendment.
Rhythms of life
To many city residents, the building is called, simply, “the dome.” Friends meet outside there at a certain entrance, shoppers look for fresh fennel there at a Saturday morning market. It does not cost anything for the irritated and the outraged to protest there.
People applaud, mourn, celebrate, sing, pound drums, blow on bagpipes, spectate, exercise, propose, assignate, marry, pimp, escape attention, even freeze to death inside and outside of the building.
To high school athletes who arrive in Madison from all corners of the state during basketball tournament time in March, the Capitol is the only point on their compass.
Some people just start their adult lives there, as did Dylan Lynch one summer Saturday morning in 2009, when he convinced his girlfriend, Heather Brown, to get some cheese bread at the Farmers’ Market. As they walked through the Capitol, in the very center of the rotunda, Dylan stopped and asked Heather for her hand in marriage.
She said yes, and their relatives and friends, who had been kneeling behind the balustrade above them and hiding behind the marble columns, burst out in cheers.
“We love the Capitol,” said Lynch. “And that day it was perfect, all our friends were there, it is so central and we lived on State Street. Perfect. We still love to stroll through there.”
More than 80 years ago, in the early 1930s, two brothers of single-digit age looked for the Capitol dome as they bounced in the back seat of the family’s Oldsmobile en route from Stevens Point to Madison.
“I had a great aunt, Aunt Babe Fisher, who lived at 11 W. Gilman St.,” recalled Bill Kraus. “My younger brother Chandler and I made a game of who could see the Capitol dome first. I won every time because I had picked out a clue on Highway 51. The dome was always visible near a certain tavern just below a rise, so I was always alert and would see it first.”
Kraus, now 90, would later come to work in the Capitol as adviser for his friend, Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus, from 1979 to 1983.
Also working in the Capitol during Dreyfus’ term was Marion Applegate, who was one of three or four guides. Fluent in German, she was called upon to give tours in that language, “a delightful experience.”
“I remember Mrs. (Joyce) Dreyfus coming up to our gathering desk and saying ‘it is you people who run this Capitol.’ Made us young ones feel very important.”
She also fondly recalls being “courted at my lunch hour” by her husband-to-be, Bill Applegate.
Jack Holzhueter was a freshman clarinet player at Menomonie High School when he first laid eyes on the Capitol interior in 1953 while attending a music clinic. Four years later he was a freshman at UW-Madison when he visited his state representative, Gustav Bakke, who took him out to lunch.
“It was spectacular,” he recalls of those first sights. “An awesome building.”
Holzhueter returned to the Capitol hundreds of times after becoming a historian for the state, later helping write the definitive history of the structure and its 1988-2001 renovation. He has favorite spaces in the building.
“I would go into little alcoves at about the third level, places to look out and little benches to sit on, just a gorgeous place, so much to see.”
As for the building’s history, though Holzhueter said the first work of brilliance was in how the building was sited, how it takes advantage of its placement to seem larger than it really is.
Then there were the “geniuses” who decorated the building — the muralists, especially. He recalled during the renovation discovering that artists 100 years ago brought their girlfriends into the building on Sundays and scribbled messages on the ceilings.
‘Come visit me’
Sara Schoenborn remembers entering the Capitol in August 2009, to interview for an internship with a legislator. She got the job, “and I was at an age where I saw how the Capitol and the people inside of it played into my day-to-day life, how the decisions made there impacted my education.”
“It is so beautiful there,” she said. “I have a feeling there is a nobility in the place, and a passion. There is an element of care there.”
Schoenborn now gets to admire the Capitol through the floor-to-ceiling windows in her office on Pinckney Street on the 8th floor of the US Bank building, where she is director of communications for the Cooperative Network. That means she is frequently back at work in the Capitol.
“I see the dome as a beacon of hope, and I think that at the heart there is good in that building. I don’t consider those who protest negatively, either. They are passionate people who want to make change and want to be heard.”
And for context, Schoenborn adds, “I like the click-clack sound my heels make walking across the marble floor.”
While Holzhueter, who worked at the Wisconsin Historical Society as a research specialist and editor from 1964 until 2000, is uniquely qualified to measure the greatness of the Capitol’s qualities, the “decorative geniuses,” and exceptionally skilled artisans and material choices, he said the masterpiece started with where and how it is located on the Isthmus.
“It is sited perfectly, it is actually a small site for a building of that size, but it fits very cleverly, outside and in. Everything indicates that it is a public gathering place.
“This was an enormous strain on the architect to come up with a plan to fit everything on the site, and (George Post) did this brilliantly by rotating the building so that it had wings coming out. Nobody else did that, and this was magnificent.”
One reason the public finds the building so inviting are the entrance avenues, which offer places to sit, rest, talk, eat a lunch. Then there is that level platform outside framed by an open balustrade circling the Capitol, he said. This reduces the imposing visual effect of the hill the building sits on, making it more inviting and creating “a beguiling, magnetic entrance from State Street.”
“It’s a wonderful setup that says, ‘Come visit me.’ ”