Friday, December 28, 2012
Dec 28 - The Mississippi State Capitol
It rained most of the night. I woke to rain. And it rained most of the day today. It's probably still raining as I punch out this post from under the covers of my bed... a place I find more uplifting than looking out windows at puddles, mud, and dreariness. I'm trying to be mature about this, but there's only so much a guy can take.
We drove over to Jackson Mississippi this morning and found the State Capitol in the middle of a downtown that felt abandoned. I suppose the days between Christmas and New Years are a grand time to take that unused vacation time or to just play hooky. There were so few people that parking was readily available, many restaurants were closed for the whole week, and traffic was so light they could have turned off the traffic signals to save a few bucks.
There's actually two Capitols here... the old historic one that's now a museum, and the "new" Capitol that was built in 1903. It's this newer building that was the target of today's exploration.
Did I mention it was raining? We parked as close to the Capitol as we could, grabbed an umbrella each, and scampered to the front door. Inside the door there's a security screening station where it took a couple passes to successfully get through the metal detector. The guard found my little pocket knife which he said he'd have to confiscate as they're not allowed inside... but, on second thought... he told me to go ahead and keep it as there were few people in the building and certainly no one they needed to protect from a mild-mannered mad-man from Wisconsin.
The building is designed in the traditional style (central dome, columns, rotunda, space for legislature, executive, and judiciary). As government grew, the Supreme Court and the Governor moved out to more spacious accommodations across the street. Both houses of the legislature still meet here but there's not enough office space to give every legislator a private office. Some use their desk on the floor of the House or Senate chamber as their office.
While looking down on the House chamber from the gallery above, I noticed a dozen or more curiously shaped sticks (walking sticks? canes? or what?) on various representative's desks. I asked our tour guide what they were? She didn't know but said she'd find out. An official from the House was handy so we asked him. He smiled, chuckled, and said some people might not like the answer.
You see, often legislators lean back, recline, in their big oversized and overstuffed desk chairs, and get very comfortable during long sessions as they listen to arguments, debates, and speeches. When it comes time to vote on a bill (the House uses an electronic voting system), they grab their stick, and from their comfy reclined position reach over to the little keypad on their desk and tap the Yea or Nay button... all without having to waste any more energy than necessary by sitting upright to vote with a finger. Down here in Mississippi, this is what they refer to as an energy saving vote.
Something else unique in this Capitol is that the House and Senate chambers are turned 180 degrees from the traditional. In every other Capitol we've visited walking onto the chamber floor from the rotunda side, you'd be entering the chamber at the back. The focus of activity, the front of the chamber, is on the furthest side from the rotunda. Here, that's reversed. You enter the chamber at the front and the focus of activity is on the side closest to the rotunda. Each chamber also has it's own massive dome which adds even more magnificence to an already impressive space.
The interior of the building is very light, illuminated by more than 7,000 incandescent bulbs that form constellations of light that's both impressive and attractive. The building lacks much in the form of symbolic art but decorative art is all around in the form of leaded glass windows, brightly painted walls, and repeating design motifs. It's the only State Capitol I can recall that has stained glass windows depicting historic elements of the State... in this case the Native American, Mother Mississippi, and the Pioneer Settler.
Also unique among the Capitols we've visited is the method of funding for the building. In this case, the 1903 price of just over $1,000,000 was paid for by the Illinois Central Railroad... as settlement for back taxes owed to the State.
We both really enjoyed our visit to the Mississippi State Capitol. Our guide, who was knowledgeable, fun, and energetic, really added to the experience and provided some background that we wouldn't have picked up on our own.
After our visit we repaired to an establishment a couple blocks away called Ol' Tavern for a couple craft brews and an excellent lunner. The old building was exposed brick and wood, high ceiling'd, basic, and had the feel that many generations of State workers and legislators relied on it for sustenance over the years.
It was about as good a day as one could hope for. And even the rain stopped before we were through.