The Long Way to Washington: South Dakota and Its Capitol Building

I’m assuming not many people think of the Dakotas as destinations. You have to know someone in Sioux City or have a cousin in Fargo to go that far north (if you’re in the South or Midwest) or that deep into the continent (if you’re from either coast). However, as any destination does, even the Dakotas have points of interest to satisfy your urge to see new places and experience new things. I decided to travel through the Dakotas on my way to the Pacific Northwest from Nebraska.

It was enough out of the way that it could have been considered a detour, but there is a clear path north to Bismarck and a clear path from there through Montana to Washington state. In places with subtle beauty like the Dakotas, the back roads lead to more satisfyingly beautiful views. It’s just that they don’t get the publicity—or they are not AS spectacular or as large as famous destinations. I believe spectacularness is a matter of focus. If you are focusing on a small autumn leaf and you allow yourself to see it, you’ll find all the grandness of the Grand Canyon right there.

Water and wildlife conservation area along the South Dakota highway

Many conservation areas along the road in South Dakota are subtle microcosms of autumn beauty.

In the Dakotas, some of the more obvious destinations are the state’s capitol buildings, which is true of many other destinations, as well. A capitol building in any state is a center of government, industry and social change. A state is usually willing to part with funds to make a capitol building a cultural and civic focal point. They become symbols of sophistication and solidity. Tourists know they can go to capitol buildings to find out more about the state. They are often sometimes considered a starting point when visiting a state’s capitol city.

I had originally decided to go north to Fargo, but I knew I wouldn’t have a great deal of time in the Dakotas, so I moved my route a bit westward and headed for the Dakota capitol cities. I chose a series of roads that combined the fun of back-road scenery with the speed of divided highways. It always surprises me how much time it takes to deal with day-to-day needs and get to destinations. My travel time is complicated by work, as well, since I work full time on the road. So, when I arrived in each city, I felt disappointed with how much time was left for me to explore. I looked for something that would quickly assuage my curiosity (one of the things that draws me to the road in the first place). Capitol buildings nicely fit the bill because they were easy to find and unlikely to disappoint.

The back of South Dakota capitol building is impressive in its own right.

The back of the South Dakota capitol building is pretty enough that I wondered if it was the front.

South Dakota’s Capitol Building: Out of a Storybook

I arrived in South Dakota’s capitol city of Pierre (pronounced “peer”). As I often do when I first come into a city, I decided to start out by following my nose and seeing what I would run into of interest. I passed a museum, thinking I did not have time to make an in-depth visit. As I continued driving, I saw the high dome of the capitol building and made my way there.

This classic capitol building is grand and decorated—a miniature version of what I picture our nation’s capitol building to be. (I haven’t been to the capitol in DC yet, although I’ve visited the city several times!) It is full of terrazzo tilework, some of it installed when the building was built between the years of 1905 and 1910. The tile art was restored and updated for the state’s centennial in 1989, and some of the stained glass work was updated for the quasquicentennial (125 years), which is happening this very year. In fact, the state’s official celebration would take place right in this building just a couple of weeks after my visit.

I first approached the building from the back, not realizing there was a front. I hadn’t done any research and hadn’t even really decided on the capitol building as a destination, which is my usual way. I like the feeling of discovering a place as Magellan must have when he circumnavigated the world…one view at a time as the road unrolls before me.

South Dakota's capitol building contains a collection of first ladies' inaugural gowns.

The first floor of the capitol holds a miniature collection of first ladies’ inaugural gowns.

First-floor staircase at the South Dakota state capitol building

The first-level staircase offers a glimpse of the opulent decor above.

The bottom floor in the back is plain, but holds a promise of stunning architecture in small details. When you enter, you have a choice to walk either left or right, which seemed strange until I realized as I came around to the front of the building that there is a grand staircase in the middle. The staircase is wide, white and flanked by classic pillars with carved Corinthian capitols (caps on the tops of the pillars).

At the top of the steps, I swung around and walked the other direction (toward the front of the building), confirming that I had walked into the back door. As I moved down the hallway with the staircase dropping away to my left, the capitol rotunda opened up in front of me. I imagined a dove following me, rising into the large space above me to the dome and touring around the circle all the way up there at the top. The marble work here is rich with color and texture, artistic flow from your feet up the walls to the dome, and symbology that makes you feel as though you are at the center of some great and satisfying truth.

South Dakota's state capitol building includes a beautiful domed ceiling in the rotunda.

The rotunda is capped with a copper dome and skylights.

A legend says there are many small square blue tiles incorporated into the tilework that represent each Italian artist who created this beauty. More small red heart-shaped tiles were added to represent those who restored and added to the artwork in the 1980s. Symbols in the artwork include ribbons joined together representing the eternal nature of government and an upside-down stairway baluster to remind us that only God is perfect. The dome contains many illustrations of the Tree of Life. My favorite symbol was the statute of a mother and two children representing wisdom. (See photo.)

The statue representing wisdom contains likenesses of a mother and children

A statue representing wisdom stood in an arched alcove within the rotunda. Three other statues represented other important positive human qualities.

I climbed another flight of the airy white stairs to the legislative level where South Dakota’s congressmen and senators make law. The legislature was not in session and chambers were locked, so I took a few more photos over the white railing. I could see some of the carving and inlay better from here. My heart seemed to float over the empty space in front of me, and when I looked up into the domed cavity above me, it seemed to rise like that imaginary dove. The almost-dizzy and expansive feeling this created, I could imagine, is one of the reasons humans create buildings like this. You tend to attach the physical feeling to mental, emotional and spiritual meaning. I have the same feeling when I visit the Nebraska capitol building in Lincoln. It raises your awareness to new heights and makes you feel as though you are part of something bigger than yourself. A handy feeling to inspire in legislators, who lay philosophical and practical groundwork for our society.

The second-floor balcony raises you up, so you can see the rotunda art in more detail.

From the second-floor balcony, it’s easier to see some of the beautiful rotunda art.

As I came down the staircase, the feeling of elevation subsided. I literally felt as though I was coming down to earth. To punctuate that particular feeling, I headed to the ladies room. Can’t get more earthy and practical than that!

A complete package: the South Dakota state capitol building’s carved limestone exterior

When I got back to my car, knowing now that I was at the back of the building, I drove around to the front. I came from the west side (there’s a lake on the east), and as I drove along the treelined street, the capitol façade unfolded. When you look at it from the side at an exact 90-degree angle, the front of the building looks like a thin crooked line, then as you drive forward, the façade expands into view, with new details materializing as they become more recognizable.

The front of the building is as grand and fancy as you want a capitol building to be, with its broad staircase and pillars rising to the fourth story, then the tower, then the patina copper dome. Now I could see the windows, and I wondered what was in each of them. Two round ones at the bottom of the tower were particularly intriguing. Narrow staircases? Closets? Or accents in a beautiful gallery room? Maybe I’ll come back someday to find out. For now, I reluctantly completed the circle drive and found a place along the lake to work on my computer and make a call to a client. Time to come down from the clouds and take care of business so I can make my way to the other Dakota.

The South Dakota state capitol building is everything you want a capitol building to be.

The mighty features of the South Dakota state capitol building reflect a desire to rule with strength and confidence.

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