Breaking into the State Capitol - by Accident

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by koshkha on February 8, 2009

After nearly two weeks buzzing around Colorado, we realised that we'd hardly be able to hold our heads up high when we got home if we had to admit that we'd actually spent hardly any time in Denver. Just the day before we were due to leave, we'd still only been into the city once, to visit the botanic gardens. We'd undoubtedly look like idiots for being so close and seeing so little so we checked out the guide books and headed into the city – not entirely confidently as two weeks driving around the mountains hadn't really prepared us for big city driving.

We had identified an area where we wanted to see several things and so we pointed our noses in roughly the right direction for the Capitol Building and the Art Museum and decided to kick off with a bit of history before a dose of culture. We wandered through the Civic Centre Park which lies between the Colorado State Capitol and the City and County Building. We stopped to look at Colorado's own Liberty Bell, admired some decorative metalwork showing many of the state emblems (who's have thought it; Colorado has its very own 'state dinosaur'), a big statue of a Civil War soldier and to take photos of the mile markers on the steps. We noticed that the building looked familiar although neither of us had seen it before and then twigged that it's a lot like the Capitol building in Washington DC. The building is built of Coloradan white granite, and is topped off with a grand dome that's currently coated in gold but was originally topped off in copper until someone realised that copper goes green quite quickly. And then, without any further thought, we proceeded to pull off an audacious and entirely unintended break-in to one of the most important buildings in the city.

It wasn't with any malice or bad intent that we did this. We just weren't on the right side of the building and that in itself isn't so surprising when you consider that the building is symmetrical with all four sides looking pretty much identical. So much for heightened security, as an employee left the building with the door still open behind him, we slipped in and wandered around just by the offices of some important local bigwigs. Only when we saw the security guards and the metal detectors and x-ray machines did we realise that US security isn't all it's cracked up to be.

We found the tour desk which is also the souvenir counter and were told that the next tour would be starting in about 25 minutes but there was a cafeteria downstairs where we could get drinks and a place to sit down. We were also told that they couldn't guarantee us places for the tour of the dome and the attic but if we turned up at the right time, we'd 'probably' get in. Probably was good enough. We headed down to the basement for cold drinks and cakes and marvelled at how easy it had been to break in to the State Capitol.

We returned to the desk at the allotted time and joined a group of about 8 people which steadily grew in numbers as the tour progressed. The guide was a volunteer who clearly loved her job and was happy to answer any questions – even the ones from the astonishingly boring Civil-war-obsessed guy who wanted to ask more questions than any human being should ever ask in a lifetime, let alone in a brief tour. She led us first around the ground floor, explaining the bizarre history of the building and telling us how it had – like most public projects – gone way over budget and way off its timeline. The architect had big ideas and an attention to detail and insistence on getting precisely what he wanted that wouldn't be unusual in many current day municipal building projects. Examples included the use of the Colorado rose onyx – a rather garish decorative stone that was chosen to clad much of the interior. Unfortunately in choosing the rose onyx, nobody thought to check how much of the stuff existed in the single source available to them – a quarry in Beulah, Colorado. As a result the onyx supplies were exhausted long before the project was finished and the less visible parts of the building had to be finished off with some (allegedly inferior and certainly less 'loud') imported Italian stone. Within the veining of the onyx, those with a high degree of gullability can be persuaded that it's possible to see the faces of Molly Brown, George Washington and a Christmas turkey to name just a few. There was also so much brass all over the building that my fingers started to twitch with sympathy for the many cleaners who must have suffered over the last century trying to keep the place gleaming.

The full itinerary of the tour escapes me now but there were some notable highlights that stick in my mind many months later. I particularly enjoyed the embroidery of important Colorado ladies – a large hanging covered in pictures each with a story behind them. There was a native American chief's wife who was famous in her own right, lots of impressive frontierswomen with their covered wagons, famous singers and dancers and women who's left their mark on Colorado.

Up the stairs we visited the Presidents' Gallery – a circular balcony about the main staircase, decorated with the portraits of all the US presidents. Apparently some of the presidents have been stolen – some more than once. I know people can be a bit light-fingered on tours but I'm baffled at how you could sneak out of the State Capitol with a framed portrait under your coat. Getting your picture in the Capitol isn't just a privilege of presidents though and throughout the building there are portraits, frescos, and some beautiful stained glass windows showing local people. In one of the assembly rooms there are a row of stained glass representations of the chiefs of local native American tribes. On one landing we also saw a stained glass portrait of Emily Griffith, a local educator who set up education centres for adults who'd missed out on school and was tragically murdered.

One of the chambers for state debates and legislature was used in the old Perry Mason films for the courtyard scenes. To be fair, I had to take the guide's word for that as I have only the sketchiest memories of those films.

The main staircases up the centre of the building are extraordinarily grand and seem to cry out for grand events and ladies in crinolines sweeping down them. A bunch of tourists in casual travel clothes didn't quite match up to what you felt the building deserved. However, the grand staircases aren't the only ones and we learned that the side staircases are decorated with canon balls from the Civil War.

During our visit, there was quite a lot of renovation work going on inside the building with some sections closed off due to the work. However, with the exception of the places we couldn't get to because of the workmen, we did get a good sense that the tour was offering a really good overview of the Capitol and there wasn't too much that we were barred from seeing. The guide frequently used the building's lifts (elevators) to get us around the building because several of the party were elderly and a bit frail. I would imagine that any visitor with mobility issues would find the tour guides are happy to modify the tour to ensure they can enjoy it fully.

After about 45 minutes, our guide returned us to the tour desk and we headed off to take the separate tour of the attic and the dome.

Our tour had been enjoyable, informative and just long enough to feel we'd seen plenty without being long enough to get boring. Considering the tour is entirely free and the building is well worth a look, I'd definitely recommend a visit – and don't forget your camera. There's lots to see.
Colorado State Capitol Building
200 East Colfax
Denver, Colorado, 80203
+1 303 866 2604

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