July 3 - North Dakota State Capitol

There's a lot to be said for North Dakota these days. Contrary to the miserable financial condition of most States in the Union, North Dakota is in great shape money-wise. As a result of all the drilling and production activity in the booming Bakken Oil Field in the western part of the State, they've got money coming out of their ears. There's a huge and growing rainy day fund into which they keep pouring money. And although recently rejected by the voters, the fact that some group could actually propose the abolishment of all property taxes says a lot about how well-heeled North Dakota actually is these days.

If nothing else, North Dakota is an example of fiscal restraint... of only spending the money they have and no more. The legislature meets for only 80 days every other year. During that time they hammer out a few hundred pieces of legislation and balance the budget... and then they go back to their normal lives (which for some, means full-time fund-raising for their next election.) Granted, with the recent inflows of oil money the job of balancing the budget has grown immensely easier. Regardless, the budget is balanced.

But this fiscal restraint is one of the reasons North Dakota is well down the list of State Capitols when it comes to traditional stateliness, soaring classical architecture, and grandeur. Here's a quick version of the story:

In 1930, on the 28th of December, the original State Capitol caught fire... and the building along with almost all of the contents was a total loss. In one night, they were left without a center of State Government.

Consider the time... 1930. The nation was a full year into the Great Depression. There was much uncertainty about the future of American affluence, the American Dream, and the ability of the system to "right itself" after the systemic collapse. There wasn't much money to be had... much less the consideration of what the people would think if the Government can build a gilded temple while common people have trouble feeding their families.

At the same time, the use of steel in the structure of tall buildings was becoming common and "fashionable" by the use of relatively cheap steel skeletons covered with a facade of stone.  The famous Chrysler Building (1930)  and the Empire State Building (1931) were popular in the minds of a public yearning for innovation and grasping for symbols of hope for the future. If your goal was to produce the most office space for the least amount of money, high-rise construction was the way to go.

So by August of 1932 plans had been drawn up and construction started on a 19 story skyscraper with a wing attached for the two legislative chambers. When completed in 1936 it was, and still remains, the tallest building in North Dakota. The budget was locked at $2 million dollars... a modest amount compared to the capitols of surrounding States. In fact, portions of the original Capitol grounds were sold off to help finance the project.

An additional wing for the Judicial Branch was completed in 1981, and other buildings on the 160 acre Government Campus are used by other agencies and departments.

My knee-jerk reaction when researching the building prior to our visit was mostly negative. I've been hard on other high-rise Capitol designs (Nebraska, Louisiana, Florida) in that they're really more a functional office building than a formal symbolic seat of Government, museum, and art gallery honoring the efforts of the people who brought the State into the Union as well as a celebration of the power of the people to govern themselves. Of note, North Dakota's, Nebraska's, and Louisiana's Capitols, all high-rise designs, were all built in the early 1930's.

But this visit made me appreciate the period, the need, and the available resources... and I was more impressed with what they did than I thought I'd be. The building is tastefully decorated, with key symbolic elements in the soaring 40 foot high Memorial Hall, which takes the place of the Rotunda in most traditional domed Capitols. The Ground Level contains portraits of North Dakota's Hall of Fame... about 40 or 50 people from the State who have made a significant contribution.

House Chamber in North Dakota State Capitol
 We did enjoy our visit to the North Dakota State Capitol and, significantly, I believe it gave me a new appreciation for considering the external factors that go into decisions about symbolic buildings like this.

However, I still can't bring myself to forgive Florida for building that "Insurance Company Office Building" they call a Capitol in the 1970s. Some things just can't be forgiven.

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