Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Day 107 - The Wisconsin State Capitol Tour

I have never attended the Wisconsin State Capitol tour. While I live in the state’s capital city and have visited the state capitol building plenty of times, taking the formal tour is something I have never sought to do. Basically, my perspective on the tour was that I could see everything the tour entailed on my own if I really chose to do so. After all, the Wisconsin State Capitol is a public complex that prides itself on accessibility. In turn, I never made a point to take the tour before today. My decision to do so would prove my assumptions on the experience incorrect and would expose me to a depth of state history I had never previously encountered.

The capitol
My first experience with the Wisconsin State Capitol tour began a little before 1:00 pm this afternoon. With a “recovery day” built into my schedule after my return from Ireland, the early afternoon trip to the capitol provided a nice outlet for me to occupy an afternoon without trying to fit in a full day. When I arrived at the capitol I approached the information desk at the edge of the Capitol Rotunda, which was full of protestors engaging in the ongoing daily hour long “Solidarity Sing Along” protest. After confirming I was in the correct location for the 1:00 capitol tour, I turned my attention to experience the controversial “Solidarity Singers” firsthand. Although the protestors had recently blanketed local news with stories about their arrests at the hands of Capitol Police, I found the group to be a respectful and joyous crowd simply exercising their first amendment rights in “the people’s house.” They were not interfering with anyone’s workday, they were not defacing any part of the building, and they were not preventing anyone from accessing or using all parts of the building. They were there only to use their voices in protest of the current administration as they stood surrounded by walls that displayed words and pictures of the underlying tenets of democracy. Their actions seemed acceptable against such a backdrop, which made me question how the decisions of the current state government and the Capitol Police force reflect a government that claims to support freedom and democracy.

The end of the sing along
With knowledge the capitol tour was scheduled to start at 1:00, the protestors promptly ended their “Solidarity Sing Along” a minute before 1:00. As they promptly moved out of the building, a nearby tour guide emerged alongside the information desk and called for all tour group participants to gather around her. In response, a small group of people and I moved closer to her, which prompted her to begin the tour. After giving a brief background of the capitol building, the woman led us up a flight of stairs and down a hallway. There, we met a small chamber containing a badger statue and a single door that had “Office of the Governor” painted above it. The woman stopped us for a brief moment to explain the significance of the badger statue in Wisconsin’s history before leading us through the single door and into an elaborate conference room.

The badger!
Around the massive t-shaped table at the room’s center were walls painted a deep red and aged artwork occupying the free space at the center of each wall. Each corner and frame in the space was encompassed by intricate gold embellishments that were complemented by a massive marble fireplace at one end of the room. I was staggered by the sight of such elegance in our state capitol building, which the tour guide explained was a result of an effort to model the conference room after the interior rooms of an Italian palace. As the woman continued speaking about the room, I did my best to take in the details of the elaborate space around me. I couldn’t help but feel such elegance embodied a disconnect between the government and everyday people, but the tour guide’s comments about the room’s nearly 100 years of age made me realize that disconnect is not a new phenomenon. Continuing, the tour guide informed us it was a rare occurrence to have access to the room given its routine use in state government affairs. The comment made me feel lucky to start off my tour experience with such an event, which caused me to linger in the room a few moments longer after the guide had begun leading the group onto the next stop in the tour.

The governor's conference room
After taking in the final views of the governor’s conference room, I rejoined the group at a hearing room known as the “yellow room” in the capitol. The room had walls constructed of pale yellow marble with a ceiling constructed of a brilliant yellow stained glass organized in geometric designs. The guide informed us of the history behind the room before leading us further into the tour, which carried through the State Supreme Court, senate, and assembly chambers. All three areas of the capitol maintained the themes of the hearing room, with ornate fixtures surrounded by beautiful marble walls illuminated by natural sunlight streaming through intricate stained glass panels in the ceiling of each area. It became apparent each room in the capitol maintained a consistent color theme that tied into the overhead glass panels, which gave a unique feel to every room we encountered. As we walked, our tour guide pointed out the objects of historical significance and explained the history and construction of each room. I was astounded at the information she presented, and ultimately found myself developing a renewed sense of respect for the capitol building and the history that occurred within its walls. Although I had always found the building to be a beautiful piece of architecture at the center of my state’s politics, I didn’t truly realize the significance of the building until taking the tour, and that was something worth taking away from the experience.

The senate

The assembly

The Supreme Court

Eventually, our tour wrapped up in an area overlooking the Capitol Rotunda. After a brief explanation of some of the most outstanding pieces of art contained within the capitol dome, our tour guide instructed us we could ascend a nearby elevator to take in the sights from the capitol’s observation deck. For whatever reason, I was the only member of our group to take her up on the offer, which resulted in me finding my way to the deck alone. After taking the elevator and walking up a few flights of stairs, I exited to the exterior of the building near the top of the capitol dome.

Upon exiting to the hot summer air, I immediately walked to the railing and looked down on the city of Madison bustling beneath me. As I stood in the peaceful, quiet air high above the ground, cars and people hurried from block to block in the middle of the intense summer heat, doing their best to meet whatever obligations they held as a part of their routines. I thought about how many of them likely traveled these streets day after day and, like me before, probably never made time to fully experience the state capitol building they see every day. It was another moment in my “I have never...” journey that made me glad I decided to break out of many of my routines, if even momentarily, to gain new experiences like the one that brought me to the capitol observation deck. Before, I didn’t know what I was missing because my eyes weren’t open, but now that I’m taking time to look around me I’m seeing the flaws in my old perspectives. Sure, there was comfort in my routines, but I can’t help but wonder what I was giving up for the sake of familiarity. For whatever I’ve missed, I’m glad I’m doing something now to make up for it. I’m starting to realize living is all about making the most of the moments we are given and about the stories that we tell. It’s not about our routines, our titles, or the things we call our own. It’s about who we are as people. In these moments I feel like I’m truly living and that’s a damn good feeling.

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