Ever majestic, Wisconsin’s Capitol celebrates its centennial
There’s a definite spring to state Sen. Fred Risser’s step that belies his advancing years.
“Let’s take the stairs,” he said as he and an aide walked through the Wisconsin State Capitol, which marks its 100th anniversary this year.
The beautiful building is just 10 years older than Risser, who turns 90 on May 5. The Madison native has spent six of his nine decades as a lawmaker in the edifice that dominates the city skyline.
“Sixty years in this building, and I’ve never ridden an elevator,” he stated with pride.
That’s quite a feat, given that Wisconsin’s Capitol soars more than 284 feet, making it just one yard shorter that the nation’s Capitol in Washington, D.C.
The building sits on a 13-acre square. While the Capitol is the state’s nerve center, that square is the city’s soul. With its vibrant, pulsing collection of hotels, restaurants and museums, plus its wildly popular farmers market, the Capitol Square beckons visitors not only from America’s Dairyland but well beyond.
A 1904 fire razed the former Capitol, forcing the lengthy construction of a new one. Each resident was taxed 25 cents to help fund the $7 million building, completed in 1917.
“I have seen 38 state Capitols, and yours is really extraordinary,” guide Annette Eisman told guests as she led them on a free tour, armed with an arsenal of facts about the building’s mosaics, statues and other features.
The sparkling crystal chandeliers, for instance, were made by the same company that crafted fixtures for the RMS Titanic five years earlier. Forty-three types of stone — quarried everywhere from Wisconsin to Vermont and Italy to Algeria — are incorporated into the Capitol’s 700 rooms.
“It looks exactly as it did in 1917,” Eisman pointed out. “Even the light bulb wattages are the same.” Maintenance workers keep busy tending to 40,000 bulbs.
Visitors are also welcome to explore the building on their own, though its warren of corridors and stairwells can be disorienting. For bird’s eye views, climb the stairs — there’s no elevator up here — into the dome. The walls are covered with displays sharing the building’s history.
The security officer has the key to a small balcony inside the actual dome — not a great place for those with vertigo. An expansive outdoor terrace with views of downtown, the lakes and the University of Wisconsin campus isn’t nearly as frightening.
Back at ground level, three very different museums face the Capitol: the Wisconsin State Historical Museum (30 N. Carroll St., historicalmuseum.wisconsinhistory.org the Wisconsin Veterans Museum (30 W. Mifflin St., www.wisvetsmuseum.com) and the Madison Children’s Museum (100 N. Hamilton St., www.madisonchildrensmuseum.org).
Parents can chill while their kids safely tear through the museum built with them in mind. It’s filled with fun, interactive exhibits.
Informative but static exhibits populate the historical museum, which showcases what’s described as Wisconsin’s “lively politics.” It’s a phenomenon that remains obvious in progressive Madison.
“Hang down your head, Scott Walker, hang down your head in shame,” sang a small group of protesters gathered on the sidewalk outside the Capitol. Known as the Solidarity Singers, the group has been locked in battle with Walker, the state’s Republican governor, since he took office in 2011.
Every weekday from noon to 1 p.m., the group protests with its repertoire of folk songs, either in the rotunda or outdoors.
“We have never missed one Monday through Friday,” said Christine Taylor, a retired computer programmer for the state. “Forty below, snow, ice, there’s always somebody here.”
On Saturdays from mid-April through mid-November, the square’s sidewalks are the domain of the Dane County Farmers’ Market (www.dcfm.org), one of the best in the country. It draws thousands of people each week.
The 180 stalls that ring the Capitol are stocked with fruits and veggies, breads and pastries, meat and fish, colorful flowers and, of course, cheese.
“Isn’t that good? I love it, love it,” Julie Hook remarked as a potential customer sampled one of the roughly 60 varieties of cheese she and her husband, Tony, sell each Saturday. They’ve been regulars since 1994.
“You get to talk directly to the consumer that’s trying your product,” Tony said. “They get to sample it and tell you what they think.”
Shoppers can take a respite from the crowds (and a bathroom break) inside the Capitol. All year long in the rotunda, there’s a special exhibit: “A Century of Stories — Celebrating 100 Years at the Capitol.”
“It’s a gorgeous building,” Sen. Risser, D-Madison, remarked. “The setting of this Capitol is such that you can see it from 25 miles away because it’s on a hilltop.”
“Being 100 years old doesn’t show,” he added. “It’s very current in its functionality.”
Jay Jones is a freelance writer.
If you go
Hourlong tours of the Capitol, 2 E. Main St., are held several times daily. No reservations required. Call 608-266-0382; tours.wisconsin.gov. For more on the centennial, visit www.capitol100th.wisconsin.gov.
Several restaurants and hotels can be found on or near the Capitol Square. The Old Fashioned Tavern & Restaurant (23 N. Pinckney St., www.theoldfashioned.com) celebrates the traditions of Wisconsin’s taverns and supper clubs.
The square’s newest lodging, AC Hotel Madison Downtown (1 N. Webster St., www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/msnac-ac-hotel-madison-downtown), will welcome its first guests in May.
Visit the historical museum’s gift shop for unique presents and souvenirs, including T-shirts pointing out that, in Wisconsin, drinking fountains often go by the name “bubblers.”
The Wisconsin Historical Society is running a 90-minute walking tour, “Hidden History of the Capitol Square,” at 2:30 p.m. June 17. The price is $10. Call 608-261-9359, or register online at www.wisconsinhistory.org.
For more information on Madison, go to www.visitmadison.com.
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