KY's Old Capitol An Option For Close-To-Home Tourists

by Rick Howlett on July 17, 2008

Staying close to home this year on your summer vacation? You’re not alone. But as Kentucky Public Radio’s Tony McVeigh reports, you don’t have to go very far in the Commonwealth to find something interesting.

With gas prices soaring, Governor Steve Beshear has been encouraging Kentuckians to vacation close to home this year. In May, he helped tourism officials unveil the “Discover Your Own Backyard” program.

“Without leaving this state’s borders, folks can visit numerous parks, lakes, museums and other cultural and historic sites,” Beshear said.

But where to go? What to do? If you like history, Kentucky’s capital city is hard to beat. Daniel and Rebecca Boone are buried here, the Kentucky History Center covers half a city block and of course, Frankfort is home to the so-called New State Capitol, built in 1910. It’s “new” because three others came before it. Two burned down, but the third, now called the Old State Capitol, still stands on the Public Square. Built in 1830 of Kentucky River limestone, in the Greek-revival style, the Old State Capitol is considered a masterpiece of nineteenth-century American architecture. Curator Sara Elliott says it was the first major project of 25-year old Lexington architect Gideon Shryock.

“It’s a very elegant building. It’s based on a Greek temple. And it is a traditional Greek image, with the columns and pediment on the top. The only difference is this building actually has a cupola, or lantern,” Elliott said.

McVeigh: “OK, great, let’s go inside! So, this was the normal entryway for lawmakers and citizens? I bet these doors stayed open a lot in the summertime.”

Elliott: “Yes, they did and that’s one of the reasons the building had so many problems, because the humidity, the smells from the privies out back, things like that, made it pretty uncomfortable here, and especially in the summertime.” It’s air conditioned now, and well preserved, with old law books lining the shelves of the state library and period furnishings, some original to the building, on both floors. The structure’s centerpiece is a soaring, self-supporting, circular stone staircase.”

McVeigh: “So each one of these is a separate stone that’s been cut…and this is the capstone.”

Elliott: “Yes, it’s the one thing the kids always remember.”

The stairs lie directly below the huge cupola, which, in the daytime, bathes the interior with light. At the top of the stairs are the House and Senate chambers, which occasionally spring to life with ceremonial events, like the recent kickoff of the two-year celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birth.

This is House Speaker Jody Richards at that event: “Clerk, sound the chime! Let the journal show that this august body is convening in the Old State Capitol!”

In these chambers, from 1830 to about 1910, state leaders plotted Kentucky’s course. Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser, and Lafayette, the French general who toured the frontier after the American Revolution, are among those who spoke here. Huge oil paintings of each hang on the walls, as does as authentic rendering of Daniel Boone, who looked nothing like actor Fess Parker, who portrayed him on television.

Curator Sara Elliott: “He was a small man. He was short. He had red hair and he never wore a coonskin cap.”

In fact, the Shawnee Indians called Boone, “Sheltowee,” or Big Turtleā€¦but that’s another story. This is about the Old State Capitol, in downtown Frankfort. Governor William Goebel was assassinated on the front lawn and a bronze plaque marks the spot where he fell. His statue stands nearby. So, if you like history and architecture, put this one on your list. It’s open daily Tuesday through Saturday from ten to five. There is a small admission fee.

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