Camp Martin Travels

These entries will be a combination of historical day trips, graduate level travel courses, and just little stops along the way. I have been teaching 8th grade American History for over 25 years. I am also a Civil War Reenactor and have traveled to Germany and Austria with several groups of exchange students and written about our adventures. Please check all my posts by using the monthly Blog Archive tabs shown below. I have posted over 150 Blog Episodes since 2009... Please explore them all!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

PA Capitol Building Tour

PA State Capitol Building Tour
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

Capitol Building Rotunda
I am preparing to go overseas this summer for a few weeks and needed to get my very first passport for the journey.  Thankfully, I am a saver of personal documents, including almost every pay-stub from every job I have ever had during my lifetime.  I know that borders on hoarding but I learned this habit from my father who has a similar archive only much larger.  When I learned that I would need my birth certificate to apply for my passport, I knew exactly where to look and found it in minutes... However, upon closer inspection I realized it was a birth announcement from the hospital filled out by some nurse with really nice handwriting.  Despite the fact that it was adorned with the official seal of the state of Pennsylvania front and center, it was considered an invalid document because it didn't have a raised seal in the lower right hand corner.  Now what?  After a search to the four corners of our house and my parent's house, my quest for the official certificate ended in failure, I needed to look into getting a replacement and fast!  The passport process can take months and the clock was ticking...

Rotunda Grand Staircase
I found it hard to believe that I had the pay-stubs from my part time job as a stock-boy at Weis Markets from when I was in high school but didn't have the document that proved I was born?  Are you kidding me?  Why is it that you always have every possible piece of paper safely filed away... except the one you really need?  I instantly went online and visited the State of Pennsylvania's helpful website, navigated my way to Vital Records, and hit the Birth Certificate Replacement tab.  What did we ever do before the internet?  I followed the steps, downloaded the forms, filled them out, made a color copy of my driver's license, wrote out a check for ten dollars, and mailed it away ASAP!  Over the next two weeks I watched for my check to clear but it didn't and the mailbox continued to fill with bills daily but no birth certificate.  I went back online to investigate and found a sentence tucked at the bottom of the webpage stating it can take up to ninety days for a replacement certificate to arrive by mail.  Three months?  Really?  I quickly switched to Plan "B" and called a local notary to see about express messenger service... Six to eight weeks!  How about we jump right to Plan "Z" and hit the internet one more time!

Murals of Pennsylvania History
My trip to Germany was on the line and my misplaced/lost birth certificate was becoming a major problem.  I came to the obvious conclusion that my parents never gave it to me thirty years ago and they must have lost it!  Upon further research, I found out that I could go to Harrisburg to the Vital Records Office on Walnut Street and request a replacement certificate in person.  They could process my request on site right away and I could pick it up a few hours later.  So off to the state capital I went, taking a personal day off from work to prove to the government that I was in fact, born!  I found the small office that was half the size of my living room, filled out the same form I had mailed in a few weeks earlier, paid another ten dollars, and was told to come back three hours later.  So... what takes three months by mail, can be accomplished in just three hours in person!  I love the government!  Now what could I possibly do to kill a few hours in the state capital of Pennsylvania?  Hey, how about checking out the Capitol Building just a few steps away from the Vital Records Office.   

Pennsylvania Senate Chamber Floor
I went back to the car, stowed away some unofficial miscellaneous documents I brought from home to help prove I had been born, and grabbed my camera.  With my tourist status now on full view for all to see, I hit the streets!  As I made my way toward the Capitol Building, I was reminded of the sheer size of the imposing structure that sits on five and a half acres.  It is quite a hike to get to the front door as you pass column after column of white granite from the state of Vermont.  You know you have arrived at the front entrance when the Barnard Statues come into view.  The two group sculptures that flank the front entrance were created by renowned Pennsylvania artist George Grey Bernard and contain a total of 27 full size figures depicting mankind in various stages of life.  Just inside the door, you have to go through the normal security screens of metal detectors and cameras that show the contents of your belongings.  If you don't get tackled by the Capitol Complex Police, you are now free to proceed into the impressive rotunda, the heart and soul of the State Capitol Building. 

Pennsylvania Senate Chamber Ceiling
I had visited the State Capitol Building before a few years ago with my kids but never had the official tour.  The building seemed deserted on this particular Friday morning as the lawmakers were not in session and mostly out of town.  I signed up for the free tour that take place weekdays from 8:30 - 4:30 on the half hour.  I was joined by a nice elderly couple who were sightseeing in the city from Rochester, New York.  The tour began within the Capitol Rotunda and is truly spectacular to see in person, an architectural marvel that you really need to see in person to fully appreciate.  The design of the rotunda space was inspired by many aspects of the famous Paris Opera House in France including the Grand Staircase and three-tiered marble gallery that rises to support the beautiful illuminated dome high above.  The dome itself is 272 feet high, weighs 52 million pounds, and is lit by 48 porthole windows and over 4,000 lights.  The tour guide said the rotunda is the safest place to be during an earthquake since the heavy building is made of solid rock and is a free standing structure.  Sounds good, but I can just picture all that broken glass raining down on me at light speed...  I think I'll take my chances outside under a park bench!  The tour guide agreed, admitting she wasn't game to test the claim either.  Thankfully, the ground remained steady and we were able to continue the tour.

  Supreme Court Chamber / Harrisburg
The floor of the rotunda is laid with red tiles made by local craftsman Henry Chapman Mercer that also extend down the Senate and House Corridors.  Starting in the Senate Corridor there are mosaic tiles laid within the floor that depict symbols of Pennsylvania's history and development.  The first mosaic tile at the far end of the Senate Corridor shows the Native Americans, a Conestoga wagon marks the approximate midpoint located below the rotunda dome, and the last mosaic tile at the far end of the House Corridor shows a Model-T automobile.  There are a total of 377 mosaic tiles within the floor that walk you through Pennsylvania history.  Next, we headed up the marble Grand Staircase to view the Senate Chamber from the public gallery viewing area.  The large mahogany doors opened to reveal a large beautiful room that resembled a palace.  The room was filled with symbolic art of Pennsylvania's history displayed in paintings, sculpture and stained glass.  The whole room told a story with each piece of artwork seamlessly connected to the others to form a complete timeline of Pennsylvania's growth and development as a state.  The chandeliers each weigh two tons and are large enough for a six foot tall person to climb inside to change the light-bulbs, which is periodically needed.   

  State Supreme Court Chamber Dome
The fifty senators still sit at the original mahogany desks that were purchased when the Capitol Building was built in 1906 but are most well known for being the subject of a scandal.  Back in the day, furniture was purchased based on weight and the price increased with the reading on the scale.  The foreign furniture company from Belize tried to cheat the State of Pennsylvania by inserting lead bars within the four legs of each chair to increase the weight and final price.  However, the discrepancy was discovered and the parties involved found guilty.  Remember kids... Crime doesn't pay!  The Senate Chamber, which was designed by architect Joseph Huston and artist Violet Oakley, went through a major restoration project in 1994 bringing the artifacts within the room back to their original brilliance and luster.  The chamber is framed in rare green Connamara marble imported from Ireland and the entire room is accented with 24 carat gold leaf.   Next we were off to view the Supreme Court Chamber that is not open to the public unless you are on the guided tour.  The Supreme Court is only in session in Harrisburg a few months a year as the court also rotates to serve in the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.   

 Supreme Court Chamber Chandelier
The Harrisburg Chamber is located on the fourth floor of the Capitol Building between the Senate and House Chambers.   The chamber walls are adorned with sixteen works of art by Violet Oakley, who also painted herself discretely in the upper left hand corner of one of the large works of art.  Her most famous piece is the work entitled Divine Law, where several legal words and phrases are creatively hidden within the painting, which is pictured at the top of this blog.  Above our heads was a beautiful glass dome also designed by Alfred Godwin accented in multiple shades of emerald green.  The other amazing art on display came in the form of four large bronze chandeliers with a small sculpture of a philosopher nested inside a columned temple.  At the rear of the chamber was a simple wooden keystone shaped clock, one of about 150 found throughout the Capitol Building.   Our final stop on the tour was the large House Chamber where 203 lawmakers representing their constituents from the far corners of the state come to vote on pending bills attempting to become new laws. 

 Pennsylvania House Chamber Floor
Once again we viewed the House Chamber floor from the public gallery balcony located above the rear of the chamber.  The large space is flanked by 14 stained glass windows, each weighing in at over 200 pounds each.  The walls are framed with beautiful white marble from the Pyrenees Mountains in France, the only building in the Western Hemisphere that contains the rare marble.   There are five large mural paintings by famed artist Edwin Austin Abbey, including the enormous 35 square foot canvas positioned above the Speaker of the House's podium entitled The Apotheosis.  The painting is a tribute to 28 famous Pennsylvanians who had an impact on the state's history with founder William Penn honored at the forefront.   The room was dim with the main chandeliers on the ceilings darkened to save energy.    The six crystal chandeliers weigh between two and four tons depending on their position within the room and contain approximately 1,000 light bulbs.  Turning off those lights really can make a difference in your monthly electric bill!  Conservationists?  I guess a large wind turbine to generate electricity on top of the rotunda dome would just clash with the rest of the Capitol Building's exquisite decor.  And the golden statue known as Commonwealth isn't willing to share top billing!    

 Senate Private Office Wing
Well, the short half-hour tour had come to an end and we were now free to explore the Capital Building Complex on our own.  The tour was excellent, short but full of interesting facts and not overwhelming. There are a total of 475 rooms within the Capitol Building and most are off limits to the public unless you know someone on the inside... which I don't.  If I did, I never would have had to come all the way to Harrisburg to get my replacement birth certificate in the first place.  However, I turned a chore into another opportunity to learn more about our state capitol.  Now that the tour was complete, I had plenty of time to seek something else to check out while I waited for my new birth certificate... like all the unique restaurants along nearby Second Street for lunch.  Sounds like a plan!  Who's hungry?  I walked up and down Second Street and finally settled on a restaurant called Stocks on 2nd and ordered the unimaginative burger and fries.  However, it was really good, hit the spot, and refilled the tank!   Well, my three hour tour of Pennsylvania's capital city was just about up and it was time to go see if there really was going to be a birth certificate waiting for me at the Office of Vital Records or INS agents to arrest and deport me... Fingers crossed! 

One Last Shot of the Rotunda
I made my way to the Vital Records Office, which was now jammed packed with people and resembled a crowded phone booth... if you are old enough to still remember what a phone booth actually looked like.   However the hard working public servants cycled the line though quickly and efficiently.  And low and behold, they actually had my replacement birth certificate waiting for me to pick up!  Hooray!  I really was born and now had the document to prove it!  I quickly exited the office before anyone could change their minds and with certificate tightly in hand, I walked directly back to the parking garage for my getaway.  I looked over my shoulder several times and could swear some big guys in dark suits and matching sunglasses were discretely following me and quickened my pace.  I boarded the parking garage elevator without incident and made it to Level Five and sped off through the concrete maze until I found the exit slide, paid my tab, and headed for daylight.  Soon I was making my way out of the city limits and set my sights on home.  All in all it turned out to be a fun day and now that I had my birth certificate, I could start the "simple" process to get my passport.  Germany... Here I come!  Fingers still crossed!

My Proof I was Born!

Please See All My Photos of my Tour of the Capitol Building at...

Please Read my Related Blog on the History of the State's Capitol at...

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