Enter the building to go back in time — back to the Victorian era of fine craftsmanship, elegance and grand opulence. Magnificent chandeliers softly light halls as they did when the Capitol was lit by gas; walls and ceilings glow with authentically-restored painted colors and patterns; and furnishings recreate the aura of another age.
Plain and unadorned, the Capitol’s ground floor provides little hint of the splendors above. Never intended for the public, Architect Elijah Myers originally located store rooms and an armory here. However, during the Capitol’s restoration, the building’s main entrance was relocated to the ground floor in order to enhance public safety and improve accessibility. An Information Desk is located here, where you can inquire about tours, Capitol history, and the locations of legislators and other state government offices.
Originally, the walls on the ground floor were plastered and painted to resemble the exterior’s sandstone facade. To enhance the illusion, even the joints between the stone blocks were re-created in plaster and paint. Here, as in most of the Capitol, the wood wainscot which covers the lower portion of the walls was painted to look like walnut. Simple pine strip flooring covered the floors. Arched doors with glass side panels let light into the corridors to augment the dim illumination characteristic of gas lighting. During the restoration, every effort was made to accurately return the Capitol to its original appearance.
The ground floor was no exception, and great attention was paid to detail. For instance, an original gas cock found during the restoration was copied and used in the replicated lighting fixtures on this floor. However, a few changes were made to enhance utility and safety. Durable gray tile was substituted for pine flooring and lighting fixtures are electric rather than gas.
In the center of the building, where the corridors intersect, is a glass ceiling — actually the glass floor of the rotunda on the next floor. Here you can see the cast iron columns, which support the floor and the massive walls, which support the dome. The Capitol’s walls are built of solid brick and — except for the rotunda’s glass floor — even the ceilings and floors are brick.
At one time, the Capitol housed all branches of state government, including the Supreme Court, the legislature, the governor, and various state administrators, such as the attorney general and the secretary of state. On the first floor are offices where some of these agencies were located. Today, all but the governor, the lieutenant governor and the legislature have moved to other state office buildings.
The floor of the rotunda is made up of 976 pieces of glass. Each is about five-eighths of an inch thick. The floor is 44.5 feet in diameter. The floor’s design creates an optical illusion: seen from above it appears that the center of the floor sinks to form a bowl.
The rotunda rises 160 feet to an opening at the top of the inner dome. Called the oculus, or eye of the dome, it provides a glimpse into the vastness of the universe, represented by a starry sky. The rotunda and inner dome are beautifully decorated with elaborately hand-painted designs, as are the walls and ceilings throughout the Capitol. Over nine acres of hand-painted surfaces have been carefully restored to look exactly as they did originally.
Until 1990, cases circling the rotunda contained historic battle flags carried by Michigan regiments during the Civil War, as well as flags carried during the later Spanish-American War and World War I. Because of their deteriorated condition, the original battle flags were moved to the Michigan Historical Museum where they are being preserved. Replicas now take their place in the Capitol.
As a fun fact about the capitol pillars, none of them are real marble. Hand painted to fool the eye, the columns are cast iron, the pilasters are plaster, and the wainscot is pine. In this way, the opulence of the Victorian age was achieved without expensive materials, an economy necessary to keep the Capitol within its limited construction budget. In fact, one of the reasons we are on the National Register for Historic Places is in large part because of the building’s nine plus acres of Victorian decorative paint. The resulting building is a masterpiece of craftsmanship rather than merely a showcase for expensive materials.
One of the most distinctive features of the Capitol is the checkerboard black and white tiled floors in the main corridors. The white tiles are marble, but they are a relatively inexpensive marble quarried in Vermont. The black tiles are limestone, also quarried in Vermont. The black tiles are filled with fossils of marine snails and other marine animals which lived in the seas covering Vermont during the Middle Ordovician, about 475 million years ago. The large white spirals in the black tiles are the fossils of Maclurites, a large snail-like mollusk.
The second floor is home to the Gallery of Governors, where portraits of former Michigan governors line the rotunda on this and the third floor. By tradition, each governor selects the artist, pays for the portrait, and donates it to the state after leaving office. When a new portrait is hung in the Gallery, room is made by moving the oldest portrait to another location in the Capitol.
The Capitol is adorned with beautiful “walnut” woodwork, including doors, door frames, and wainscot. Almost all the wood trim in the Capitol appears to be walnut—and almost none of it really is. Most of it is pine or other inexpensive woods, carefully hand painted to mimic walnut. Called “wood graining,” this technique involves applying seven layers of paint by hand. Every line of grain—and even the pores in the wood—are painted by hand! Originally undertaken to save money, all of the building’s wood graining has been completely restored. Today, the Capitol ranks as one of the finest examples of this ancient art in the nation.
The office of the Governor is also on the second floor. The Governor’s Office and Parlor, among the best-documented and most beautiful rooms in the Capitol, have been carefully restored. Features include original furnishings manufactured by the Feige Brothers Company of Saginaw. Preserved through the efforts of Marie Ferrey, who in 1913 became the first curator of the Michigan Historical Museum, the furnishings are a tribute to Michigan’s furniture manufacturing heritage. Pictures hanging on the Parlor walls are of former Michigan governors—reproductions of the charcoal-enhanced photographs that once hung here.
The lobbies of the House and Senate Chambers are located on this floor, in the north and south wings. You will find an illustrated seating chart, designed to help you locate your legislator’s desk on the chamber floor.
The public viewing galleries for the House of Representatives and Senate Chambers are located on this floor, and open to the public. Visitors must be seated when the chambers are in session. On very busy session days you may have to wait briefly until a seat is vacated before being allowed to enter the gallery. There are sections in both galleries designed to accommodate visitors using wheelchairs.
The House Chamber is the larger of the two chambers, accommodating 110 members. Each Representative is elected for a two-year term from a district of about 90,000 constituents. Each member sits at an assigned desk, with Democrats traditionally sitting on the left of the chamber and Republicans on the right. The presiding officer is called the Speaker of the House and is a Representative elected to this position by fellow members.
Voting was originally done by calling the roll and recording the yeas and nays by hand. Today, roll call and voting are done electronically. Voting and message boards are located on either side of the Speaker’s rostrum at the head of the chamber: they are carefully designed to blend almost invisibly with the wall when not in use. In this way, we preserved the historic appearance of the chamber without sacrificing modern speed or efficiency.
On the wall over the Speaker’s Chair at the head of the chamber is a magnificent version of Michigan’s coat-of-arms, rendered in cast plaster, glaze, paint, and gold leaf. On the left is an elk and on the right a moose, flanking our national symbol, the eagle. Above the eagle are the Latin words of our national motto, “E pluribus unum,” meaning, “From many, one.” A shield bears the Latin word, “Tuebor,” meaning, “I will defend.” Below is a small figure standing on a peninsula backed by the rising rays of the sun. The elk, moose, and shield are supported by a banner bearing the Latin words of Michigan’s motto, “Si quaeris peninsulam amoenam, circumspice,” meaning, “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look around you.” At the time the motto was written, the Upper Peninsula was not part of Michigan.
General Lewis Cass, former governor of Michigan Territory, designed the Great Seal of the State of Michigan, from which the coat-of-arms is taken, in 1835. He based the design on the seal of the Hudson Bay Fur Trading Company. A portrait of Lewis Cass hangs on the east wall of the House Chamber: it is the portrait nearest you on your right as you face the rostrum. Opposite Cass, on the west wall, is a portrait of young Stevens T. Mason. Nicknamed the “Boy Governor,” he was Michigan’s first governor and, at the age of 24, the youngest person in our nation’s history to hold this office.
Restoration of the Senate Chamber was completed in January 1990. Although architecturally nearly identical to the House Chamber, their very different color schemes render each chamber unique. Rather than the House’s terra cottas and teals, here you see vibrant blues and silvers. The decorative paint in both chambers features elaborately stenciled and freehand designs, gold leaf, and colored glazes. As in the House Chamber, skylights once again allow natural light to stream through ruby and white etched glass panels in the beautiful coffered ceilings. More light is provided by four original chandeliers (there are six in the House Chamber) which glitter overhead. They consist of brass, lead crystal, and fire-hardened glass, and are lowered on pulleys for cleaning.
The seating arrangement on the chamber floor is essentially the same as in the House. The members’ walnut desks in both chambers are original, designed by the Capitol’s architect, Elijah Myers. Here in the Senate Chamber, however, extra space allowed the addition of side consoles to house computers and telephones.
The Supreme Court left the Capitol in 1970 and the room is now used by the Senate Appropriations Committee for meetings and hearings. The room, with its exceptionally high ceiling, elaborate decorative paint, and ornamental plasterwork is one of the most elegant in the Capitol. It shows how a space can be adapted to a new use without sacrificing beauty and history.
Some visits include a stop in the House Appropriations Committee Room opposite the old Supreme Court Chamber. This room was originally part of the Michigan State Library (later the State Law Library). The State Library was a large room similar to the Senate and House Chambers. Like the chambers, it rose from the second through the third floors. Bookshelves were arranged on iron galleries or balconies, which ran all around the room on several levels. The floor here is not original; it was put in to adapt this space for offices after the library left the Capitol and moved to another building.