Having lived in Columbus for more than 15 years, we’ve visited the Ohio Statehouse plenty of times. In fact, my wife used to work for an event planning company that designed and installed the holiday decorations.
The decorations were designed to fit the 1860s, the decade when the Statehouse was first completed, so we learned a lot about that era and the building’s place in it.
But did you know you can take free tours of the Statehouse? They’re offered every hour on the hour. My boys were off school one day, so we met a tour guide in the basement of the Statehouse on the giant map of Ohio that shows all 88 counties.
The 45-minute tour starts on the lower levels and takes you through most of the building. Our knowledgeable guide filled in details like how and why it was built, who has worked there, important architectural details, and more. Here’s where we went and some things we learned!
Columbus didn’t really exist as a city before the capital was built. The state legislature decreed that a capital needed to be built near the geographic center of the state. People from the settlement in the Franklinton area offered 10 acres of land just east of the Scioto River. The state government assumed that a city would grow up around the capital building – and it did!
After the basement, we took the elevator up to the main floor and into to the rotunda.
Be sure to look up to see the glass ceiling of the rotunda, complete with the state seal of Ohio. It’s 128 feet from the floor to top of the rotunda.
The guide pointed out some of the artwork in the rotunda, including a sculpture topped with a bust of Abraham Lincoln representing the end of the Civil War, and this original painting of Commodore Perry at the Battle of Erie in the War of 1812.
Another fun fact about the city surrounding the Statehouse: the state legislature had to name the new city. It came down to Columbus or Ohio City as the name – and obviously Columbus won!
Our next stop was to the south wing to see the Ohio House of Representatives chambers. He walked us up the stairs into the gallery.
This room was particularly good for noting the minute details in the building. Construction on the Statehouse lasted from 1839 to 1861. It’s built in Greek Revival style, using limestone quarried from two miles away in what’s now Marble Cliff, as well as marble from Greece and Italy.
From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s the state undertook $120 million of renovations on the building. It was showing its age, so they worked to restore it back to the way it looked in the 1860s, including painting it in its original colors.
Next our guide walked us to the north wing, where we could peek through the windows to the Governor’s Office. Although it’s mainly used for ceremonial purposes today (the governor and most state legislators have offices in the Riffe Center across the street), it’s still kept in its original state.
Then we walked across the hall to the Ohio Senate chambers. The room is very similar to the Representatives’ chambers, except there’s no balcony – the gallery is on the main floor.
Our tour guide also talked about the three times President Abraham Lincoln visited the Statehouse. The first time was in 1857 when he was in the early days of campaigning for his presidency. He gave a speech at this pillar on the east steps of the building, talking for two hours to about 30 people.
His second stop was as president-elect in 1860, as he took the train from Springfield, Illinois to Washington, D.C. He gave a speech at the podium (that’s still used in the Representatives chambers). While he was here he received the telegram saying his election win had been certified.
His final stop, sadly, was on April 29, 1865, when his body was being brought back from D.C. to Springfield. He laid in state in an open casket for eight hours that day, while more than 50,000 people stopped to pay their respects. His body was being transported along with that of his son Willy, who had passed away while he was president.
The final stop of the tour took us across the relatively new atrium to the Senate Building. The two buildings were connected by the atrium just over two decades ago. The open space between them had been known as Pigeon Run. It was so popular with the pigeons that legislators would run with their heads covered from building to building.
Now the space is enclosed, but if you look closely you can spot Pigeon Pete, a stuffed pigeon who represents the bird’s place in the building’s history.
Afterwards we poked our heads in the Statehouse Museum Gift Shop.
And we played a bit at the museum itself.
The boys’ favorite game is the one where you practice balancing the state budget!
Want to go on a tour yourself? Check out the Ohio Statehouse website (ohiostatehouse.org) for information on tours, hours, and special events. Be sure to check out the Statehouse Museum Shop, and stop for lunch at the Graze cafe (see their menu here) in the lower level!
For more Ohio history, Find It Here at Ohio.org.