I visited the Pennsylvania State Capitol more than a year ago, but the information is current.
The name “Pennsylvania” conjures up a variety of images, many contrasting and contradictory. Some of the early European settlers as they fled political strife contrast with hard-fought presidential campaigns. The founding ideals of the American experiment in Philadelphia meet the watershed brotherly bloodletting of Gettysburg. The domination of industry, as in Billy Joel’s “Allentown”, and the idyllic rusticity of the Pennsylvania Dutch.
Last Spring I took a month out of my normal life to go to the U.S. and spend time with a few of my favourite people. One of the hard parts of being a student for most of my twenties is that most of my really close friends didn’t just leave town when they graduated. They left the country. A girl takes these things personally. Sometimes this means that I get to meet up with a friend for an adventure. One of these adventures was my trip to France and Belgium last year. Another of the good bits is paying for a transatlantic flight then mooching off your friends for weeks. I assume. Not that I would ever do such a thing…
It’s also a great way to see places that I might otherwise miss. There are so many entire cities in a country the size of the U.S. that are undeservedly overlooked. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania is one of them. In 2001 my parents and I drove through between a claustrophobic tour of Gettysburg (Scouts on all sides – there was a jamboree nearby) and a chocolate-motivated visit to Hershey. In Hershey, we stayed in an unusually creepy motel that made excellent clam chowder (possibly from murdered guests). Anyway, between Scout-land and the murder house, we managed to swing by the Pennsylvania Capitol building.
Pennsylvania State Capitol
Right in the middle of my visit to Harrisburg, my friend took me out exploring. We took the afternoon tour of the Pennsylvania state capitol building. The building evokes one of my favourites, the Opera Garnier in Paris. And there’s a good reason for this – its staircase was inspired by Charles Garnier’s 1870s creation. The interior of the dome intentionally echoes St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but the murals on the walls and ceiling refer not to biblical motifs but to Pennsylvania’s culture and industry.
The earlier Capitol building burned to the ground in 1897. This Beaux-Arts replacement was designed by architect Joseph Miller Huston. Building began in 1902 and President Theodore Roosevelt opened the completed Capitol in 1906.
Visiting the building
We had a great guide who took us into the Supreme Court, the state senate and the house of representatives, each with impressive decorative features including chandeliers as big as hippos (the small ones) or small African elephants. The building is surprisingly accessible for its age.
The main entrance involves steps but there is a fully accessible entrance to the rear, by the fountain. Here and throughout, the staff are friendly and will happily direct you. After the security screening, things are pretty relaxed and you can explore quite extensively independently. Taking photos as a visitor is fine.
If you like, you can download mobile phone apps (click here) for iPhone and Android and use those for a self-guided tour.
Suzanne, our tour guide, didn’t make me feel like a burden at all and in fact, for the most part, my route was exactly the same as everyone else. Throughout, wheelchair users can accompany the group and the large lifts mean that there’s plenty of room. Also, there are wheelchairs available to borrow, subject to availability.
Nearby: Broad Street Market
Around Harrisburg, one very accessible place we visited was the Broad Street Market. This is a (mostly) food market in two beautiful market buildings in the centre of the city. The buildings have been lovingly restored. Accordingly, they now have wide aisles and level access, making this a good stop for anyone wanting to experience local flavours. My friends bought their milk there – directly from the supplier – and there are many options for picnicking supplies and eating on site. Underfoot or under wheels things are a bit uneven but less so than in the capitol’s entrance hall.
Harrisburg is one of the more driver-friendly cities in the East. Moreover, driving around the city is a pleasant experience, with the Susquehanna River in the centre. Consequently, there are parks along the riverbanks and islands that you can visit. Parts of the centre date back to colonial times and I was lucky enough to stay in a gorgeous red brick townhouse with my friend. Nearby you will find some of Central Pennsylvania’s loveliest scenery. In a later post, I’ll share my experiences of some of the Amish Markets around Lancaster.
The beautiful setting as I landed
Details for Visiting Pennsylvania State Capitol
Pennsylvania State Capitol
Commonwealth Avenue, Harrisburg, PA (official address)
501 N 3rd St, Harrisburg, PA 17120 (the one you’ll want to use for your GPS)
Apps for self-guided tour: http://www.pacapitol.com/mobile-apps/
Accessibility services: http://www.pacapitol.com/plan-a-visit/accessibility-services.cfm