There are places we can go and others we can't. Our Secret Places series, which begins today and will appear occasionally, is designed to take you to hidden, unknown or in-plain-view-but-off-limits places in Madison and Wisconsin. Today we visit the top of the state Capitol, where our tour guide wears a hard hat and work boots and works for a construction company.
Walking outside on the lead-coated and soldered stainless steel floor sounds like flexing tin.
The slats of the oxidized copper louvers are scribbled with graffiti. One name, etched with a sharp tool, is that of Jim Post, dated Oct. 5, 1931. Maybe he’s a relative of the building’s architect, George Post.
Another is more recent. Signed on Aug. 13, 2009, it bares the name in silver permanent marker of Dave Zien, the white-bearded, Harley-Davidson riding former state lawmaker from Eau Claire.
The 3-ton and 15-foot, 5-inch-tall hollow bronze and gold-leaf statue “Wisconsin” towers above but is out of sight. Below, a street musician strums a banjo but his music is inaudible.
The lantern observation deck at the top of the state Capitol dome is visible to thousands every day, but it’s also one of Wisconsin’s Secret Places. The public hasn’t been allowed here, nearly 237 feet above the ground, for seven decades. The Wisconsin State Journal was granted access after making a request to the state Department of Administration and receiving approval from J.H. Findorff & Son, which is working on the dome.
Few get these unique perspectives of State Street, East and West Washington avenues and Picnic Point, all clearly defined. The deck surrounds the exterior of the lantern, the column on top of the dome, which is also accessible. But with no air conditioning or ventilation there, taking in the view is more comfortable on a warm day from the outside deck. This spot also reveals a bird’s-eye view of Monona Terrace and, if you use your imagination, a renovated Edgewater hotel at the end of Wisconsin Avenue.
Back inside, on the ground floor of the rotunda, fourth-graders from New Berlin, De Pere and La Crosse gather for tours. Their stops will include the Supreme Court chambers and the ornate Governor’s Conference Room. None will have the chance to climb 200 hidden stairs, beginning on the fifth floor. Ninety-three of those stairs are part of two spiral staircases that lead to the lantern at the top of Madison’s iconic centerpiece.
One 48-step narrow spiral staircase, which causes legs and lungs to burn on the ascent, rises between the interior and exterior domes for an up-close view of Edwin Howland Blashfield’s canvas painting “Resources of Wisconsin.”
The mural’s size, on the suspended ceiling of the crown, is deceiving.
From the ground floor, the woman in the center who represents Wisconsin and holds a sheaf of wheat symbolizing the state’s agriculture, appears to be 3 to 5 feet tall. Up close, you realize she is 13 feet tall on the 34-feet-in-diameter coffer dome. The view comes from a platform in what is called the oculus. The platform, just below the painting, allows those with access to the restricted area a chance to touch and look across what most only see by craning their neck or lying on their back.
Leaning over the railing of the platform and looking down, a person views the first and ground floors as one level. A Capitol Police officer standing watch at the center of the rotunda’s ground floor is barely visible, blending in with the mosaic marble floor.
“You don’t realize the height of this from down there,” said Andy Zdanczewicz, a construction superintendent for J.H. Findorff and an impromptu tour guide.
It took from 1906 to 1917 to build the Capitol at a cost of $7.2 million. For perspective, a 14-year renovation and restoration project completed in 2002 cost more than $158 million, according to the state Department of Administration.
Findorff is the general contractor on a new project that has included the installation of equipment to remove humidity from between the interior and exterior dome spaces, tuck pointing, chip and crack repair and applying high-performance caulk sealant to close gaps where slabs of granite and other stone meet. The work is scheduled for completion in July. A second project, to repair the moisture-damaged plaster walls of the dome’s interior, will begin once the new mechanicals reduce the humidity, Zdanczewicz said.
The second spiral staircase is located directly above the mural. Accessing it requires a trip of 25 steps up a traditional staircase that reveals the metal frame that supports the interior dome.
The 45-step spiral staircase leads to the outdoor lantern observation deck and its metal floor. Less than a dozen more steps lead to the stuffy interior of the lantern where a trap door in its ceiling takes you to the interior of the “Wisconsin” statue, a place our tour didn’t venture for safety reasons.
And that’s as far as you can go.