Notes from a visit to our restored State Capitol

Last weekend, I went down to the State Capitol to see what today’s taxpayers can buy for $310 million. The state of Minnesota held a grand re-opening to show off the building’s beautiful restoration.

Here are some highlights from the tour:

• Minnesota’s State Capitol has the second largest self-supporting marble dome in the world, 87 feet in diameter. Only St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican is larger, 138 feet across.

• Associate Justice David Lillehaug of the Minnesota Supreme Court spoke to our group about the state court system. He said the state judicial system handles about 1 million cases annually, if you include traffic tickets and the like. Of those, the state handles about 60,000 criminal cases (by which I assume he meant felonies) and another 40,000 civil cases.

• In the court chamber itself, the judges have nine chairs. Asked why they have nine chairs when the Supreme Court has only seven members, Lillehaug said only that the court’s membership was reduced from nine to seven 30 years ago. He didn’t say whether keeping two empty chairs around was a form of passive resistance by justices who disagreed with the downsizing or was simply an oversight by judges with weightier matters on their minds. But 30 years?

• In the chamber of the House of Representatives, above the Speaker’s desk is a painting of Abraham Lincoln. The painting is dark and dreary, and shows Lincoln sitting in a pensive pose, sort of like Rodin’s sculpture, “The Thinker.” Our guide said all the art in the Capitol, of which there is plenty, had been restored, including the painting of Lincoln, but, while all the others were noticeably brighter, Lincoln’s was still somber. Maybe it serves as a reminder of what can happen when politicians don’t get along.

• On the wall above the Lincoln portrait is this quote: “The trail of the pioneer bore the footprints of liberty.” Above the main entrance in the back of the Chamber is another: “Reason is the life of law.” Sometimes we all, including our elected representatives, forget why we have a republic, and it is good to be reminded.

• Another quote is in the Senate chamber. This one, encircling the room just below the balcony, is by the 19th century senator and orator from Massachusetts, Daniel Webster: “Let us develop the resources of our land, call forth its powers, build up its institutions, promote all its great interests, and see whether we also, in our day and generation, may not perform something worthy to be remembered.” A noble aspiration, it can only be read in its entirety from the Senate floor.

• In the four corners of the Senate chamber are these single words: “Freedom,” “Justice,” “Equality,” “Courage.” Appropriately, “Freedom” and “Equality” are diametrically opposed. Long debates have been held on whether “Equality” refers to equality of opportunity or equality of outcome. On the other hand, “Freedom” is thought to mean that a person is free to rise or fall on the merits of his or her own abilities. Sometimes, we need to seek “Justice” or find “Courage” to discover the wisest course between the two.

• When the building opened in 1905, it was originally wired for electricity, one of the first public buildings to include that amenity. The chandeliers and other lighting are the original fixtures. An electric voting system was first installed in the legislative chambers in the 1930s.

• In the Governor’s Reception Room are four massive paintings of Civil War battle scenes. Gone are two paintings featuring Native Americans: “The Treaty of Traverse Sioux” and “Father Hennepin Discovering the Falls of St. Anthony.” Our guide called it a “great debate” in which traditionalists wanted to keep the paintings where they had always been and revisionists who said they disrespect Native Americans. The Father Hennepin painting includes a bare breasted Native American woman, which historians say is inaccurate. (As a side note, bare breasted maidens and goddesses are in other Capitol paintings, but nobody found them objectionable.) As a compromise, the two paintings were moved to the Cass Gilbert Library on the third floor where the public rarely goes — except for public open houses like last weekend. The library has precious few books, but the two massive paintings take up most of one wall. The hallways leading to the Gilbert Library are lined with posters explaining how the white people swindled the Native Americans out of their land and violated treaty provisions in case anyone be misled by the paintings, I guess.

• Also, the Minnesota Historical Society wrote short bios to put by the portraits of the state’s 39 former governors. This stirred a smaller controversy since bios of politicians may betray the politics of the writer. I found it just plain weird that the first paragraph of the bio about Minnesota’s first governor, Henry Sibley, included this sentence, “For both good and ill, Sibley played a vital role in the transformation of Indian Country into the nation’s thirty-second state.” Good and ill? The state Capitol building is the physical symbol representing the governmental power established by European emigrants, replacing the tribal governments of Native Americans. If that transformation was an ill-advised idea, why did we just spend $310 million to restore the glory of that idea’s symbol?