Colorado State Capitol Building, Denver

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Colorado State Capitol Building, Denver

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Review of "Colorado State Capitol Building, Denver"

published 27/04/2009 | koshkha
Member since : 26/12/2005
Reviews : 1434
Members who trust : 327
About me :
I've been here a very long time and even though I've been dormant the last year, I will miss Ciao enormously.
Pro It's free and it's pretty interesting as big state buildings go
Cons You can't ensure you don't get any boring nutters in your tour group
very helpful
Is it worth visiting?
Transport links
Family Friendly

"A Capitol Offence - how we by-passed US security by accident"

One of several disputed mile markers on the steps

One of several disputed mile markers on the steps

Last May my husband and I took a two week trip to Colorado to visit a friend who lives on the outskirts of Denver. The trip was to use up my remaining leave from the company I worked for before I started working for a new company. As a result of being a bit overwhelmed in the new role, I didn't get round to writing much at all about the things we saw on that trip.

To be fair, we'd got through most of the holiday without seeing anything much of Denver so on the day before we were due to leave we thought we'd better put in a pretty intense day of city tourism to avoid the complaints of "You went to Denver and you didn't even see the......." when we got back. With great advice from our host, we set off to see the Colorado State Capitol as our first stop of the day.

State Capitols - one design fits all

We approached the Capitol Building 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'd 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 that are evidence of Denver's status as the 'Mile High City'.

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. Since I've been home, I've realised it's a lot like just about every state capitol building in the USA.

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 (and allegedly secure) 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.

Getting a Tour

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. They are a relaxed bunch, these Coloradans.

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 Carrera marble. Within the veining of the onyx, those with a high degree of gullibility 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'd left their mark on Colorado.

Up the stairs we visited the Presidents' Gallery - a circular balcony around the main staircase, decorated with the portraits of all the US presidents. Apparently some of the presidents have been stolen and 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, frescoes, 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 in 'Gone With the Wind' style. 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 lifts 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. We shot upstairs to the dome tour desk and were told that the group already there was small enough that they could squeeze a couple more in without any problems.

Getting High with Mr Brown

The tours of the dome and Mr Brown's Attic go every hour, on the hour and we were lucky to have avoided getting caught up with a large school party. We had been warned that the climb was steep and not advised for anyone who's claustrophobic or has mobility issues. You wouldn't guess it to look at him but my husband isn't a fan of anything he thinks he might fall off but we'd just spent a week in the mountains and he was a bit more relaxed about taking a steep climb up inside the dome.

So who was Mr Brown? Well apparently the land on which the Capitol building was built was a donation given to the state by one Henry Brown. After 9/11 the dome of the Capitol was closed to the public and when it finally reopened, it came along with the addition of a fascinating museum about the Capitol which goes by the name of Mr Brown's attic.

When you are actually touring the main part of the building, it's very clear that it's a workplace where the business of running the state is going on all around you. The building is NOT a museum with neatly labelled things to look at. It could, I suppose, be said that the entire building is a giant exhibit but it's not a museum as such. The role of educating the public about the building they are visiting goes partly to the volunteer guides and partly to the small museum in Mr Brown's attic, the space below the dome.

Once you get up to Mr Brown's attic, you find a small but well constructed exhibition about the building which lies directly beneath your feet. The attic is a treasure house of photographs, information about the construction of the building and its importance to the surrounding areas, and about Denver and Colorado in general. There's also - and please don't ask me why, I haven't a clue - a scale model of the Capitol built entirely out of food cans. There are many special exhibits designed to be of interest to younger visitors - not so surprising since every Colorado school-kid undoubtedly gets dragged to the Capitol on a school trip at least once in their life.

Next it was time to go up into the dome itself and we were reminded that there are 99 steps to go and offered the opportunity to view a video if the climb was a bit too daunting for them. We headed up - to be honest, it's no big deal. The staircase is solid, not too narrow and you know full well in a country as litigious as the USA that there's no danger whatsoever. Climbing up the 99 steps brings you to the dome itself and it's well worth the effort. We had a young guide who'd been doing the job for only a few weeks and wasn't 100% sure what everything was, but was still clearly quite over-awed by getting such a cool job in such an amazing place.

On a clear day, you can see forever - or at least to the airport

We spread out around the platform and looked at the stained glass roundels that decorate the base of the dome and commemorate the bigwigs of the city at the time that the building was being built. The guide pointed out various features and bombarded us with facts and figures but we were hoping she'd hurry up so that we could turn round and look out of the windows at the city around us. There are giant sliding windows which must have once been routinely opened to allow people to get a better view but in these days of health and safety, there's no way the public will get out onto the outer platform. Never mind, the views are still spectacular. We could even - with a little 'eye of faith' - pick out the pointed white peaks of the Denver International Airport, many miles away and the Rocky Mountains more clearly in the opposite direction.

Closer to the building we picked out the Catholic cathedral and the museum zone with the Denver Public Library, the Denver Art Gallery and the Colorado History Museum. Looking across the Civic Centre Park, we could see the City and County building curving at the end of the park. Between us and the C&C building we noticed the flags of the state and the country hanging at half mast from the Capitol Building's flag pole. We had spotted flags similarly at half mast across the state for a few days before our visit and were told by the young guide that these were to mark the death of two young Coloradan soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan.

After about 10 minutes snapping photos out of the windows and playing "Look! Isn't that such-and-such- a building" or "Oh look, there's our car park", it was time to head back down another set of rickety stairs. It's a bit like going behind the scenes of a theatre and seeing all the ironwork and ply-board that keep the whole place together. From the outside where you can see the golden dome, it's hard to imagine the engineering that goes into keeping it safely in place.

The dome and attic tour takes about 30 minutes and is well worth seeing either instead of or in addition to the main Capitol building tour. Don't forget to check out my photos - honestly they are better than the one Ciao chose to use.

* For those who won't sleep for trying to guess, the state dinosaur is the stegosaurus. No evidence they ever lived in Colorado but the schoolkids voted and chose it.

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Comments on this review

  • silverstreak published 20/05/2009
    Next time I watch a Perry Mason film I shall be all eyes.
  • Seresecros published 02/05/2009
    Stegosaurus was the best dinosaur.
  • mightymuffin published 01/05/2009
    E xx
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Listed on Ciao since: 08/03/2009