May 17, 2014

State Capitol tour a perfect summer pastime

It’s one thing to read about abolitionist John Brown, hear about Kansas’ journey to statehood in a classroom, or see state politics on television.

It’s one thing to read about abolitionist John Brown, hear about Kansas’ journey to statehood in a classroom, or see state politics on television.

It’s another to stand inside the Kansas Capitol building in Topeka, surrounded by historic artifacts, paintings and documents, gaze up at the great dome and breathe in the history.

“The actual, physical sight of it is stunning,” said Stephanie Anderson, who accompanied her daughter, Ellie, and other fifth-graders from Hyde Elementary School in Wichita on a field trip to the Capitol in April.

“When you’re inside and standing at the bottom and looking up the rotunda clear to the tip-top, it’s breathtaking. It truly is.”

This summer is the perfect time to tour the Kansas Capitol building, where crews recently completed a monumental 13-year, $332 million renovation. Besides restoring the main building’s interior to its original opulence and grandeur, the project fixed a leaking dome and reopened it to tours, and added free underground parking and a new visitors center.

“The intricate, teeny-tiny detail is amazing,” Anderson said. “Absolutely every single place you turn around, there’s something to see. There are sunflowers, which I just love, and all the intricate artwork. … It’s just spectacular.”

The Capitol is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday. Free guided tours of the building or dome, which each take 45 minutes to an hour, are available weekdays.

Like many visitors, Anderson said the highlight of the trip for her and the fifth-graders was the ascent up the metal stairway – 296 steps – to the cupola at the top of the dome. From there, the highest point in Topeka, you can see 10 to 12 miles.

“If you have the nerve to climb all those stairs, that’s definitely the highlight,” she said. “I have pictures of both my kids outside on top of the Capitol, which is so special.”

The students also loved John Brown’s sword, on display near the entrance, the John Steuart Curry paintings so often pictured in Kansas history books, and the old cage-style, hand-operated passenger elevator installed in 1923, one of the last of its kind in the country.

Tours of the building also include Representative Hall, the Senate Chamber, state library and Old Supreme Court.

Anderson said guided tours are worth the extra effort – they’re still free, you just need to register ahead of time – because the tour guides offer bits of humor and historical insight you wouldn’t get otherwise.

“I’m 45 years old, and I still get something out of it,” she said. “To be there and experience it and stand in the spot that you see on TV or learn about in the classroom, it just brings it all together. … The real-life experience is powerful.”

For more information about the Kansas Capitol building or to plan your visit, go to the Kansas Historical Society’s website,, or call 785-296-3966. The Capitol is closed Sundays and state holidays.

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