During my time in Chicago, I was keen to trace its contributions to modern architecture – in particular that American icon, the skyscraper. But it was another aspect of American architecture that I was able to get to grips with on this trip – the beaux arts style much favoured for government buildings.
The best definition of iconic design I have seen is “can be recognised in silhouette”, and the archetypal state capitol is easy to sketch: a classical stone temple to democracy, with a drum and dome rising behind a grand entrance portico, flanked by wings for the Senate and House, heavy on columns and other grand features.
Both Utah and Idaho’s capitols follow this pattern, and in so doing draw upon a long architectural heritage. The first short step is to the US Capitol in Washington, the definitive example; its own neoclassical detailing consciously inspired by European buildings from the renaissance era. But that style itself re-imagined classical architectural elements: through, say, a Corinthian column we can follow a lineage ultimately to ancient Greece via imperial Rome.
This deliberate appeal to antiquity makes the age of the Capitols surprising, especially coming from Europe – construction started on Idaho’s in 1905, whereas Utah’s is a decade younger still. That is to say, these ‘historic’ buildings are more recent than some of those prototypical skyscrapers I was touring in Chicago! Perhaps this makes more sense when you consider that the states themselves aren’t much older, both joining the union in the 1890s.
So as landmark pieces of architecture, these two are well worth admiring from afar. Idaho’s you would struggle to miss, on a key downtown sightline in Boise; Utah’s is a little offset from the heart of Salt Lake City, but easily found on your way to Ensign Peak.
What I had failed to appreciate – until I tentatively stepped into Idaho’s, the only apparent visitor on a Tuesday morning when neither chamber was in session – is how welcoming they are to passers-by. Unlike so many grand or official buildings, these are meant to be freely enjoyed by ordinary people.
And there is much to enjoy! The opulent interior architecture is if anything more impressive than the monumental exteriors – both buildings were extensively refurbished in the last 10-15 years, and look incredible when light streams in on a sunny day. But there were also extensive educational exhibits on the history of their respective states and the US political system.
In Boise there was some overlap with the Idaho State Museum I’d visited the day before, but I was able to learn more details of Idaho’s turbulent early history. It seems a small miracle that the territory survived: its original borders ignored geographic reality in favour of geometric purity. Mountain ranges quite literally divided population centres: at one point, there was a risk of the state being dissolved entirely, land parcelled off to its neighbours. It also had terrible luck with its first few governors:
Apparently a lot of visitors miss these exhibits, as they’re located at basement level without prominent access from the entrance. This is a particular shame as here you can also pick up a booklet for a self-guided tour of the main floors. The only other person I met during my hour completing this was the security guard, who was impressed I’d figured it out (he’d probably be less happy that I accidentally stole my copy of the guidebook).
In Salt Lake City the museum exhibits are easier to find, as they’re on the entrance floor. These were more wide-ranging than Idaho’s, covering topics as diverse as the state’s use as a location for film and TV to the significance of the beehive motif. I guess they didn’t have as many hapless / criminal governors to discuss… although one display examined how in 2011 it was finally realised the state flag had been wrong for nearly 90 years!
However, you might still miss the top floor, where art and artifacts are on loan from a variety of Utah’s museums. For 2022, there was also an extensive and moving exhibit of Topaz Stories – accounts from one of the WW2 Japanese American internment camps that was set up in the state.
As in Boise, I spent a long time perusing both the building and its contents – and I suspect I will be tracking down more Capitols as I collect more states. Assuming, of course, I am in the right place! Capitals are often not the biggest or most famous city of their state, and I think apart from these the only one I have visited is Boston. As ever with America, there’s always so much more I want to see…