A Model State Capitol (1885), by Frank Opel

“The State government has now transferred itself to a more fitting habitation in the new Capitol, built within the bounds of Bushnell Park, and — what is more remarkable — within the appropriation. No suspicion of jobbery tarnishes the brilliant effect of this beautiful piece of architecture. The only bad feature about it is the enormously tall, rather spindling, twelve-sided drum that lifts the gilded dome to a height of two hundred and fifty feet above the ground. Out of the harmonious growth of blue and white marble in the main building, with its pointed windows and slated pavilions, suggesting in a modified way the great municipal halls of the Netherlands and France, this addition lifts a giraffe-like neck toward the sky; and even a large broad dome occupying the middle space, though it would have looked better, must have been out of keeping with the rest. The interior, nonetheless, abounds in good qualities. Convenient, spacious, well-lighted, having the air of ease and spontaneity, it gives numerous good vistas, varied by the great central staircases and the airy columned galleries. The battle flags of Connecticut are ranged in carven oak cases near one of the great entrances; endless offices open upon the corridors and galleried courts; the State library is ensconced in one huge apartment, and the Supreme Court in another. It is, by-the-way, a curious bit of symbolism that the Supreme Court judges’ room has its fire-place surrounded with blue tiles illustrating Scripture subjects, while the tiles in the room devoted to counsel depict scenes from fairy tales. The Representatives are accommodated in a rich and sober chamber with stained-glass windows; it is about as large, but much less stuffy, and to my mind much more beautiful, than the English House of Commons. Near the Speaker’s dais is an unobtrusive but huge thermometer, by which, I suppose, the heat of debate may be measured. The Senate of twenty-one has another lordly hall to itself, where there is provided for the President of that body a large chair made out of wood from the Charter Oak, richly carved with leaf and acorn. Both these legislative halls are carried out with an excellent appreciation of what is fittest for their purpose in the resources of art as applied to decoration; the natural grain and color of the woods — oak, ash, and walnut — combine with the subdued tones and good ornament of the walls to make a refreshing environment worthy of republican ideals and much above republican practice.

The exterior walls of the Capitol are haunted by birds, and provided with niches for statues of Connecticut worthies, two of which are already occupied by Oliver Wolcott and Roger Sherman: and between these a marble image of the Charter Oak spreads its branches. Have we not all learned the legend of that venerable tree in our histories at school? It seems almost to require setting down as a distinct species in botanical text-books; but in Hartford it becomes like the ash-tree of Norse mythology, like Ygdrasil, which upheld the whole universe. In spite of historical skeptics, the legend still holds that when Sir Edmund Andros came, in 1687, to reclaim the liberal charter which Charles II, had himself granted, but now wanted to revoke, the lights at the evening council-board were suddenly put out, and that in the darkness Colonel Wadsworth did actually carry off the document and hide it in the hollow oak that stood before Mr. Secretary Wyllya’s house. It is not so generally remembered that this tree had been an object of great regard on the part of the Indians before ever the colonists came hither. A deputation of them waited on the white men to ask that no harm be done the oak, since it had long been the guide of their ancestors as to the time for planting corn. ‘When the leaves,’ said they, ‘are of the size of a mouse’s ear, then is the time to put the seed in the ground.’ Time and tempest felled it at last; but it blooms here in marble still, its name is preserved throughout the city as the distinguishing mark of divers stores, shops, and companies; and a pretty marble slab, like a grave stone, in Charter Oak Place inadequately marks where the original flourished until 1856. In Bushnell Park (named after that eminent theologian, the late Dr. Horace Bushnell, who was the chief promoter of this public pleasure ground) there is a couple of Charter Oaks junior, sprung from its fruit; and ‘certified’ acorns, possibly taken from these younger trees, but supposed to have grown upon the parent, have been worth their weight in gold at charity fairs. Across the Connecticut, leading to East Hartford, stretches a covered bridge one thousand feet long, and taking up in its construction a corresponding quantity of timber. Mark Twain, showing some friends about, told them that bridge also was built of wood from the Charter Oak.”
-Excerpt courtesy of Archive.org, Tales of Bygone New England, “A model state capitol,” by Frank Opel, 1988. (top) Image courtesy of Newspapers.com, Hartford Courant, February 6, 1984

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