It rises above the scenic waters of lakes Monona and Mendota, dominating the Madison skyline.
Wisconsin’s Capitol ranks among the most architecturally significant in the country. Imposing and majestic, the building at the top of the Isthmus feels as if it’s been there forever.
The building is actually Wisconsin’s fourth capitol — and the third in that spot. The first Capitol was a two-story, white-framed building in Belmont, where the first legislature of the Wisconsin Territory met.
The cornerstone for the first Capitol in Madison was laid on July 4, 1837, with stone for the building coming from Maple Bluff. That building lasted until 1863, when a second, larger building replaced it to accommodate a growing state government.
When a fire in 1904 destroyed most of that building, a larger and far more ornate Capitol was constructed. Begun in 1906, construction finished in 1917.
Designed by New York architect George B. Post, the building was an American interpretation of the Beaux-Arts style, which borrowed the Renaissance arches, columns and domes of the 15th and 16th centuries.
Most consider it Post’s finest work. But after 70 years of use, the structure was showing its age.
In 1987, the legislature approved a master plan for the building, which called for a single large-scale renovation.
The renovation was intended to bring back the building’s original splendor while providing a comfortable, modern working environment. That included updating the building with the latest advances in heating and cooling, telecommunications and computer equipment.
Work began in the Capitol’s North Wing in 1990, with that phase completed in December 1992.
The West Wing was then closed in 1993, forcing the state Assembly to relocate to the former Guardian Insurance Building at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and East Doty Street. That portion of the renovation was completed in 1995.
In 1996, the South Wing was closed. And in 1997, renovation of the rotunda began. Included in that project was the first effort since the building opened to restore the four glass mosaics that adorn the tops of the dome’s four support columns. The mosaics were no longer sticking to the walls and workers had to use epoxy to stabilize the pieces.
Restoration was also done on the painting “Resources of Wisconsin,’’ the circular mural by Edwin Blashfield that lavishly decorates the ceiling of the rotunda. (A new round of repairs, principally between the interior and exterior domes, will again close the rotunda this year until Nov. 10.)
Work on the East Wing, which included renovating the Supreme Court hearing room and the governor’s office, began in 1999 and was completed in September 2001.
In the governor’s conference room, thick layers of off-white paint had to be stripped from the walls and ceiling in order to restore the gilded cherry paneling to its original condition. The room had been painted in the 1960s by then-Gov. Warren Knowles’ wife, Dorothy, an interior decorator, who deemed the paneling too dark.
The last major leg of the project involved cleaning and restoring the Capitol’s granite exterior. Conservation crews began removing the accumulated soot, dust, mold and flaking granite in 2000, completing their work in 2001.
Thanks to the efforts of some 2,000 workers who had a part in the 11-year, $141 million project, the Capitol was designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service in January 2001.
The Wisconsin State Journal published a special pictorial section on Sept. 11, 2001, and a celebration to toast completion of the work was scheduled for the same day. Both were quickly forgotten later that morning as the nation registered the horror of 9/11.