PHOTOS: A treasure trove of Kansas history as the Statehouse prepares to reopen for tours
The Kansas statehouse visitors center will reopen June 14 for self guided tours and historical guided tours. The gift shop will also reopen. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — John Brown’s sword. The state fossil. A copy of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
Visitors will soon be able to see these items among many others after more than a year without tours or frequent visitors at the Capitol building.
Most years the Kansas Capitol would see more than 6,500 people stopping to experience the state history contained there. But when the pandemic hit, the Kansas State Historical Society closed the visitor’s center for tours and field trips in March 2020.
The visitor’s center will open with tours beginning again June 14. Those who go on a tour, whether it be guided or on their own, will have access to a bevy of artifacts, archives and information about Kansas.
Joe Brentano, the Capitol visitor’s center coordinator, has given these tours for more than 14 years. That includes a period during the $320 million renovation that restored the building, which was completed in 1903, to its full splendor.
“When I travel, I do try to see state capitals. I’ve got 24 of them that I’ve been to, but I think one of the things that makes our capital so unique is the artwork isn’t just a Kansas focus,” Brentano said. “Whatever state you live in, you’re going to want to know about John Brown because he affects so many things in history.”
The Capitol stands 306 feet from the ground to Ad Astra, the figure at the top of the dome. It is the second tallest traditional dome Capitol in the country, and 17 feet taller than the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
As Brentano provided a tour to Kansas Reflector to show some of what visitors can expect when they come through Topeka, he shared some of his memories and stories from working there.
Tours begin in the visitor’s center on the ground floor, where a series of photographs displays the construction process.
“Because we had come through so much in Bleeding Kansas and the Civil War, they wanted this grand building,” Brentano said. “It’s built out of our native Kansas limestone, and you’ll see about 27 different types of marble in the building and other materials, lots of copper.”
Toward the center of the building on this floor is a museum with several artifacts from Kansas history, including Brown’s sword.
The abolitionist is featured at several points throughout the Statehouse, including the iconic “Tragic Prelude” mural — it’s 11 feet, 6 inches tall and 31 feet long — on the second-floor east wing. John Steuart Curry painted this mural and others alongside it from 1937 to 1942.
Curry was born on a farm near Dunavant, Kansas, in 1897. Brentano said he drew the murals as a sort of timeline of Kansas history. The “Tragic Prelude” depicts Spanish influence, dead soldiers on both sides of the Civil War, enslaved people cowering in terror, a prairie fire and an approaching tornado.
In the center of it all, holding a bible in one hand and a rifle in the other is the larger-than-life depiction of John Brown.
“He wasn’t really 11 feet tall, of course, but he is that figure,” Brentano said. “Intellectuals and writers at the time railed about how bad the slavery institution was, but it’s John Brown that really takes it to the next level. He’s willing to do anything to achieve the goal.”
The mural was met with significant criticism, Brentano said. People were shocked and upset with the “freak image” of Brown, the tornado and prairie fires.
“Curry was not the painter who was going to come in here and just paint a pretty field of sunflowers. He wants to tell how important Kansas is to our nation’s history,” Brentano said.
Curry also painted “Kansas Pastoral” across the rotunda, depicting the ideal contemporary Kansas. It was meant to show the overpowering sensuousness of the land at sunset and its abundant harvest.
One floor up, Brentano takes visitors to some of his favorite spots: the House of Representatives in the west wing and the Senate in the east.
The Senate is a product of exquisite craftsmanship. Italian artisans worked on the copper columns, and the chamber also features rare marbles and hard-to-find types of wood that create a room with a warm glow.
“When you see other state capitols, the chambers nearly look identical except for the number of desks. Our chambers are different because they were designed a few years apart,” Brentano said. “(The Senate) reflects more of that grand Victorian and the Gilded Age. This room did not change so much through the years like the House changed.”
The 125-seat House is much brighter and larger than the 40-seat Senate. Of all the rooms in the Statehouse, Brentano said the House may have benefited the most from renovations.
The state library is housed in the north wing of the third floor, while the old Supreme Court room is in the south wing. Outside the old Supreme Court is the Brown v. Board mural, installed in 2019 as the first new piece of artwork in 40 years at the Statehouse.
The fourth and fifth floors are mostly committee rooms and legislator offices, but an additional tour on the fifth floor can take visitors even higher to the top of the dome. The tour is unique because Kansas is one of the few state capitals that allows people to the top, Brentano said.
There are 296 stairs in all, roughly equivalent to climbing a 10-story building. From the fifth-floor entrance, the stairs ascend the exterior of the inner dome before breaking above to the outer dome.
From here you can see the top of the rotunda chandelier and the inside of the copper dome.
“As the interior, it will continue to oxidize, and eventually it will be green,” Brentano said. “People have strong opinions about that.”
Until the mid-20th century, the dome was open to anyone, unsupervised, Brentano said. The harrowing heights are worth the climb as you break through the roof and onto a small landing around the top of the dome.
The view is tremendous.
“People ask how far can we see? That is St. Mary’s, Kansas, at 30 miles away,” Brentano said.
The top of the dome is also frequented by peregrine falcons, Brentano said.
While the dome tour is a must if you can stomach the climb, it will not reopen just yet.
“We hope, as conditions get better, to reopen the dome, but we’ll evaluate that a bit later,” Brentano said.
Four historic tours of the Statehouse will be given from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.
The Kansas Museum of History, a 10 minute drive west of the Statehouse, also is now open again.
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