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The Missouri Capitol . . . Where the Front Isn’t

December 9, 2010

Missouri Capitol--South Side

The Missouri Capitol is a marvelous place to visit. I stroll around the outside and/or through the hallways nearly every weekday (yes, even in winter). I often see something I hadn’t noticed before. Let me tell you about it.

But wait!  (Now I sound like a TV infomercial: “but wait . . . call now and receive, as our special gift, not one but two. . .”)

Before we start, I’m going to dispel a very common misconception (notice how I underlined for emphasis). I know, you are sitting on the edge of your chair, so here goes: the front of the Missouri Capitol is the north side (there I go with that underline thing again); the building actually faces the river. (This fact has been verified by the Division of Design and Construction, using the original architectural plans.) The south lawn, where most public events are held, is the back. Surprised?

Ok, let’s move on. Completed in 1917, the Missouri Capitol covers three acres in downtown Jefferson City. Spaced around the nicely landscaped, well maintained grounds you will find: large, tree covered grassy areas; shaded benches; five fountains; a replica of the Liberty Bell; a memorial to Missouri law enforcement officers who died in the line of duty; a memorial to Missouri’s military veterans (which includes my favorite fountain, just in case you wondered); a cannon; a replica of the Statute of Liberty; and a monument commemorating the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery expedition. (I’m counting the waterfall there as the fifth fountain; look closely, it continues below the pathway.)

Statuary is a prominent feature on the grounds: on either side of the south entrance are bronze figures honoring the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, while a 13-foot statue of Thomas Jefferson dominates the grand staircase; on the north, a bronze relief depicts the signing of the Louisiana Purchase, and the Fountain of the Centaurs includes centaurs battling river-monsters, watched by playful cherubs.

One of the Capitol’s outstanding features is the grand stairway on the south side (ah yes, the back). More than 30 feet wide, it extends from the lawn to the third floor entrance, where there is a mammoth bronze door, 13 feet by 18 feet—thought to be the largest bronze door cast since the Roman era. A driveway (now blocked from vehicular traffic) leads to the original carriage entrance beneath the staircase. This is still the main entry point to the building, although you can climb the stairs and enter through the big door.

Atop the dome, 260 feet above the ground, is a classic bronze figure of Ceres (sîr’ēz), the Roman goddess of agriculture, chosen to symbolize the state’s farming heritage. It is unclear why the statue faces the back of the Capitol, although it is surmised this is because that was (and is) the most common point of approach by ‘the people.’

Inside the Capitol you find the Missouri State Museum, which features ever-changing exhibits of outstanding historical significance; a rotating collection totaling nearly 50,000 artifacts and objects from all aspects of Missouri cultural and natural history. In the rotunda, a massive bronze chandelier, weighing 9,000 pounds, hangs from the dome. Surrounding the third floor rotunda, the hall of Missouri Heroes includes busts of some of Missouri’s more famous citizens.

Paintings and artwork throughout the building dramatically depict scenes of Missouri’s history, countryside and people. Especially famous is the mural, painted by artist Thomas Hart Benton, on the walls of the House Lounge.

Free, guided tours of the building are given on the hour, seven days a week, 8 a.m.-11 a.m. and 1 p.m.-4 p.m., with the exceptions of Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, Easter and Thanksgiving. Tours for groups require reservations: call 573-751-4127. (Please note: January 7 thru May, 2011, maintenance will entail electrical outages every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with the exception of: March 18-20, April 8-10 and May 6-8.)

For a true taste of government in action, when the legislature is in session (January-May), you may watch the proceedings from public galleries overlooking the Senate and House Chambers. (Photography and recordings are not allowed; spectators must remain silent.) Also, most hearing rooms are open to the public when a hearing is being held.

Within a block of the Capitol, visit the Jefferson Landing State Historic Site. It includes the Lohman Building (1839) and the Union Hotel (1855), which hosts the Elizabeth Rozier Gallery, with rotating exhibits emphasizing Missouri history, art and culture.

Governor's Mansion

The Missouri Governor’s Mansion, completed in December 1871, is two blocks east of the Capitol. Public tours of the first floor are conducted. (Please check the mansion’s website for schedules and restrictions.)

Oh . . . one other thing. Capitol (with an o), should be used to mean only one thing: ‘the building in which the legislature (or congress) meets.’ All other uses of the word should be spelled using an a: capital city; capital grounds; capital view; capital idea; capital (meaning money); et cetera.

So there you have it; a quick look at the Missouri’s Capitol. Go visit. Spend some time there. Enjoy what you see and what you hear; then go back and do it again a different time of year.

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