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The Fine Art of Statehouse Ceilings

To appreciate the craftsmanship in historic capitols, look up.

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A ceiling detail in the Iowa capitol
(Photographs by David Kidd)
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.
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Illinois has recently begun a $224 million renovation of its Capitol, continuing the work of an earlier effort to restore the building to its original appearance.
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Modern artisans improvised methods to recreate the decorative plasterwork that was once common throughout California’s Capitol.
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It took several years to recreate the original Victorian decorative aesthetic to Iowa’s Statehouse after being subjected to well-intentioned, but poorly executed updates, water damage and neglect.
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Intricate patterns had to be recreated after misguided renovations to the Illinois statehouse obliterated original artwork and finishes.
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Looking just as it did when built in 1932, the two-story Memorial Hall is the centerpiece of Louisiana’s art deco capitol. Its ceiling is covered in stylized oak leaves and ringed by geometric patterns typical of the time.
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A recent renovation to Colorado’s Capitol revealed clues to long-hidden decorative motifs.
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A small section of paint has been scraped from the ceiling, exposing remnants of the old decorative pattern beneath. As many as a dozen layers of paint from previous repairs and alterations have been uncovered in the Illinois State Capitol.
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Nearly 95 percent of the Kansas Capitol’s interior was returned to its original appearance during a 14 year restoration project.
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Painted in the 1920s and restored 70 years later, ceiling murals depict the history of New York State in an area originally intended to be a dome.
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One of the best surviving examples of Victorian decorative arts, nearly every interior surface of Michigan’s statehouse has been hand painted in in bright colors and metallic finishes.
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More than four acres of plaster were hand stenciled in a 1980s restoration of the Indiana Capitol.
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Five years after a $300 million restoration of the Minnesota Capitol, preservation work has resumed on interior plasterwork still endangered by humidity and vibrations.
David Kidd is a photojournalist and storyteller for Governing. He can be reached at dkidd@governing.com.
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