In addition to being a beautiful structure, the Pennsylvania Capitol building in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, USA, is a tribute to the arrogance and self-importance of the state’s Legislature.1
In the early 1700s the Pennsylvania Colonial General Assembly insisted that Independence Hall in Philadelphia be the tallest building in the colony. Some 200 years later the lawmakers in Harrisburg wanted their Capitol for the 20th Century to be the tallest structure between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. They got their wish and the 272-foot high Capitol remained the tallest building in the midstate for 80 years.
But cynicism aside, the Capitol is considered one of the most beautiful State Capitol buildings in the nation. The Capitol was designed to resemble the nation's capitol, which was completed 35 years earlier. And architect Joseph Huston’s is considered by many to be a masterpiece. At the dedication ceremonies at the Capitol on October 4, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed, ‘It is the handsomest building I ever saw.’ Part of the design incorporates features from several famous structures.
Huston modeled his Capitol dome after Michelangelo's dome of St. Peter's in Rome, rising 272 feet from the ground and weighs 52 million pounds. The dome is topped by a statue known locally as, ‘Miss Penn,’ a golden statue of a young woman looking to the west. In the Rotunda, Huston borrowed many aspects of Charles Garnier's Paris Opera House, including the grand marble staircase which leads to the Legislative chambers with the House of Representatives on the right and the Senate on the left. Its tile floor is a wonder, Pennsylvania-born Henry Mercer produced 16,000 square feet of quarry tile and more than 400 mosaics depicting the state's history.
The Capitol is the center of government in Pennsylvania, covering 5.5 acres and housing the House of Representatives, the Senate Chamber, the Governor's Office, and the main courtroom of the Supreme Court. Sessions of all these governmental bodies are open for public viewing.
House of Representatives
The state House contains 203 voting delegates, each representing about 59,000 citizens. The House requires a majority of 102 votes for the passage of a bill. In the House, approximately 3,000 bills are introduced per session. Democratic members are seated on the left of the chamber, facing the Speaker, and Republicans are seated on the right. Votes are tallied on two large electronic boards. Each member casts a vote by pressing one button on a small box attached to his desk. It is always fun to watch a member straining to reach an absent member’s voting button, a view afforded to all visitors in the House Gallery.
The Pennsylvania Senate, founded in 1791, contains 50 voting delegates, each representing about 240,000 citizens. The Senate considers approximately 2,000 of its own bills each session. As in the House, Democratic members are seated on the left and Republicans on the right. The Senate of Pennsylvania was founded by the House as a co-legislative body in the 1700s, a fact which still galls Senators.
Visiting the Capitol
Located on Third Street between Walnut and North streets, guided tours of Pennsylvania's Capitol are offered every half hour Monday through Friday, 8:30am to 4pm. Weekends and most holiday tours are offered at 9am, 11am, 1pm, and 3pm. The Capitol is closed for tours New Year's Eve, New Year's Day, Easter Sunday, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Advanced reservations are suggested and may be made by calling 1-800-868-7672.
There is a welcome center in the East Wing of the Capitol, and is open Monday through Friday from 8:30am to 4:30pm. The center offers interactive displays the explain the legislative process and a bit of the state’s history. As part of the Welcome Center, a kinetic sculpture ‘Making Law in Pennsylvania’ represents the many steps which a bill must follow before it can be enacted into law.