America’s statehouses were built as living monuments to the power and prestige of the states. Many, reflecting the confidence and exuberance of the age, were designed to mimic Classical forms, often using myriad materials and a vibrant palette. Unafraid of overt ornamentation, architects embellished their buildings with decorative flourishes rarely seen today.
But because many of these structures are well over 100 years old, they have not only endured the wear and tear of daily use, but also the changing tastes and budgetary constraints of the generations that followed. Delicate plasterwork, murals and hand-painted flourishes were lost under layers of paint. Artisans spent months on a painstaking restoration of the decorative features in Indiana’s Capitol in the 1980s. The last layer of paint had been applied by prison labor in 1958.
A number of historic capitols have been altered over the years by ill-advised and haphazardly constructed structural changes, intended to accommodate the needs of a growing workforce. Updated mechanical systems, drop ceilings and office partitions were retrofitted to the historic structures with little regard for appearance. An earlier remodeling of the Illinois Statehouse sought to increase office space by inserting new, mezzanine floors between existing floors, making passage difficult for anyone over six feet tall. Seeking to impose a modern design aesthetic on the aging structure, the legislative chambers were stripped of their original architectural features and finishes.
Since the 1980s, there has been a renewed appreciation for the grandeur and craftsmanship inherent in older statehouses. Mechanical engineers can now install modern heating and air conditioning, wiring, fire-suppression systems and accessibility for all, without altering the integrity of the buildings. Using skills thought to be long lost, artists and craftspeople are restoring and replicating decorative details that are every bit as good or better than the originals.
The beauty of these historic old buildings can be appreciated by looking beyond the polished floors and painted walls, up to the ceilings overhead where the attention to detail is no less present. The following photographs are examples of the original and replicated decorated ceilings found in several state capitols.