Minnesota Capitol Tour: Insightful, Informative, Inspiring
By Chrissy Sarinske
No matter where you live, you should visit your state Capitol at least once in your lifetime. Consider it your “civic duty.”
I first visited the Minnesota state Capitol on a social studies field trip. What I mainly remember of that tour was how awesome it was to get to see those majestic gold horses (the Quadriga) way up on the roof. I also remember lots and lots of stairs. (Then again, my legs were much shorter back then.)
I toured the Capitol again as a fledgling newspaper reporter, to interview a senator about a local issue. I don’t remember the issue anymore. I didn’t wander around the building that day; just went directly to his office. I was a little intimidated by the importance of the place. I was in awe of the fact that this is where our state Legislature meets; this is where cases are heard in the state Supreme Court.
I went back two more times—both outside on the lawn—for rallies.
On a recent weekday morning, three friends and I went on the free Capitol tour and this was the first time I was able to fully appreciate the building for the beautiful architecture, as a historical time capsule, a reflection of our state’s rich heritage.
Our knowledgeable and friendly tour guide was eager to share information during the 45-minute tour. I learned that Minnesota became a state in 1858, and the reason there’s a portrait of President Lincoln in the House of Representatives chamber is because Lincoln was the first president Minnesotans helped elect after our state was admitted into the Union.
I learned that the gilded ears of corn and acorns adorning the walls of the elegant Governor’s reception room represent our agricultural and timber industries; paintings throughout the massive building depict Minnesota’s involvement in the U.S. Dakota War, Civil War, Spanish-American War (among many other landmark historical events prior to the late 1800s); and how the founding of our state was so positively influenced by early French explorers (we’re the only state to have a French motto: “L’etoile du Nord” — “The Star of the North”).
I learned about Cass Gilbert, the talented 35-year-old architect who designed the impressive American Renaissance-style Capitol back in 1895—with its white Georgia marble and St. Cloud granite exterior, extravagant six-foot crystal chandelier, golden Quadriga statue representing nature, civilization, and prosperity, grand Italian marble columns, vaulted ceilings, and expansive three-layered free-standing dome (one of the world’s largest)—who later went on to become a sort of celebrity architect who designed the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. and the famous Woolworth skyscraper in New York. (At the time, the tallest building in New York.)
I learned why there are ropes around the center star in the Capitol Rotunda (it doubles as a glass ceiling, and those working in the basement are distracted by the constant footsteps above). I learned that the Capitol went from an estimated $2 million in 1895 to $4.5 million 10 years later, when it was finished in 1905. (What would that be today with inflation? $100 million?)
What I learned most, though, is that you need to visit the Capitol as an adult to really appreciate it. If you toured the Capitol "back in the day" as part of a school field trip (or never!), I strongly encourage a trip.
The Minnesota Historical Society regularly hosts State Capitol tours, including general tours (free, with a suggested $5 donation), $9 theme tours (Civil War, Women’s History, Art and Artists, Architecture, and a three-hour Voice of the People: Your Role in Minnesota Government tour). The self-guided Capitol Mall Walking Tour and Art Treasures in the Capitol scavenger hunt (great for families with younger kids) are $2/person. General tours are offered year-round Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the hour, and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.