16 Public Buildings You Have to See Inside
The mental images conjured by the words "government building" likely involve tedious obligations such as jury duty, traffic court, and paying property taxes. Here's a list designed to turn that reaction on its head. We spoke with historians, architects, travel bloggers, and tourism officials to identify government buildings with interiors that will take your breath away -- instead of making you yawn. Although some are iconic and beloved structures that may come as no surprise, others could be easily bypassed, were it not for this insider's nudge. Nearly all the buildings are free to visit, unless otherwise noted.
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A structure that inspired President Theodore Roosevelt to proclaim, "This is the handsomest building I ever saw," the Pennsylvania State Capitol dates to 1902 and was constructed in the Beaux Arts style. Travel writer and blogger Penny Zibula reacted similarly when she visited the seat of Pennsylvania's state government, in Harrisburg. "To my mind, it's one of the most remarkable and enthralling government buildings in the country," she says. The interior is a feast for the eyes and the mind with its stunning rotunda patterned after St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, along with stained glass windows, ornately carved wooden accents, sculptures, and a Carrara marble staircase.
New York City is home to countless government buildings, but among the most visually stunning is the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, says Anthony Robins, a historian who spent 20 years on the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. "You could be forgiven for thinking you were in Rome or Paris when walking into this building," he says. Constructed from 1902 to 1909 to house duty collection operations for the Port of New York, the Custom House is now the location of U.S. Bankruptcy Courts and U.S. Department of Transportation offices. Among the many notable details inside this National Historic Landmark are lavish sculptures, a giant rotunda, and a series of extraordinary Reginald Marsh murals.
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Home to the offices of the mayor, city clerk, and city treasurer, Chicago City Hall is where residents go to obtain legal documents such as marriage licenses and birth certificates. Once inside, visitors often find themselves marveling at the elaborate marble stairways and bronze tablets honoring past city halls from 1837 to the present day. There are also polished Botticino marble walls and mosaic vaulted ceilings. Constructed in the early 1900s, the building has been designated a Chicago landmark.
The last work of renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and considered one of his most important, the sprawling Marin County Civic Center is a state and national historic landmark and World Heritage Site. Notable details include floors made of custom-colored composition tile, decorative arches that create a sense of rhythm, and gold spheres along the entire interior and exterior rooflines. Wright was also the first to employ features that today are considered commonplace, such as an atrium down the center of the building. Docent-led tours of the Civic Center cost $10 for adults and $5 seniors and students.
An Italian Renaissance Revival structure completed in 1888, the Texas Capitol is taller than the U.S. Capitol in Washington. Visitors who venture inside will find a stunning rotunda at the center of the building, lined with paintings of each Texas governor. The history of Texas and of the United States is portrayed in several paintings in the senate chambers and throughout the capitol. Hanging in the south foyer, for instance, is a painting depicting the surrender of General Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto.
New York City Hall, completed in 1812, is one of the oldest continuously used city halls in the nation that still houses its original governmental functions. The Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the building's central rotunda an interior landmark. And that's not the only feature that makes a visit inside this building so worthwhile. "There's a fabulous double staircase going up under the cupola," says historian Anthony Robins. Also worth a look is the Governor's Room, a museum space housing important paintings, historic furnishings, and notable artifacts.
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The Maryland State House is the only state house that also served as the nation's capitol. It's the place where George Washington resigned his commission and it hosted the Continental Congress in 1783-84. The remarkable interior features extensive use of black and white marble and a large rotunda that encompasses 300 years of history. The building is home to the oldest wooden dome in the country, which is covered with stunning, ornate plaster detailing on the inside. Period rooms focus on the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Walking through the building essentially provides a visual tour of the nation's history.
Those who've traveled to Washington and seen the old standbys, such as the U.S. Capitol and the White House, might consider a visit to the Library of Congress. It's the oldest federal cultural institution in the nation, dating back to 1800, and notable for far more than its collection of books and important documents. "It's not much on the outside, but the inside is spectacular," says Don Chernoff, founder of SkyRoll luggage in nearby Reston, Virginia. "It's the closest thing we have in this country to the cathedrals of Europe and the best kept secret in D.C. Tourists have no idea." With elaborate interior spaces and ceilings, particularly in the main room, the structure is a significant departure from the cold, gray marble look that dominates most of the city's buildings and monuments.
Built between 1906 and 1909, at the peak of the nation's coal mining wealth, this courthouse in eastern Pennsylvania includes an intriguing cruciform plan and classical revival style. "It's a thrilling statement of civic confidence," says Michael Lewis, an architectural history professor at Williams College. "I don't know of anything like it in America." Must-see highlights include courtrooms painted by some of America's leading mural painters, sculptures throughout the building, and a light well at the center of the courthouse, rising all the way up to the cupola, which Lewis describes as "a radiant chalice of light."
The Nebraska State Capitol is the result of a nationwide design competition won by New York architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue in 1920. Built over 10 years and completed in 1932, the finished structure synthesizes modern construction and historical form, says Michael Lewis, an architectural history professor at Williams College. The building's office tower rises dramatically over the Nebraska plains. The ornamental interior includes marble-columned chambers with vaulted polychrome tile ceilings, marble mosaic floors, and murals depicting the natural and social history of Nebraska's Native American and pioneer cultures.
With its shining golden dome visible throughout the city and its picturesque perch on Beacon Hill, the Massachusetts State House is hard to overlook. From the outside it's a sight to behold, and the interior is equally stunning. Details include marble floors, corridors lined by portraits of governors, and murals depicting the state's heritage. Also not to be missed is the Hall of Flags, says David O'Donnell of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau. Completed in 1798, the room honors Massachusetts soldiers and includes striking murals such as "The Return of the Colors," which depicts a return of flags that took place during the Civil War era.
A 23-karat golden dome and a glass tile floor weighing 19,000 pounds are just some of the highlights at the Iowa State Capitol. Among the many notable details inside the building are rooms and chambers decorated with marble (29 types in all) and a marble grand staircase. A variety of wood sourced from Iowa, including walnut, cherry, catalpa, and oak, is used throughout. Also worth a look: a mural that extends the width of a wall over the marble staircase and depicts the westward migration of pioneers to Iowa.
Built to be Spain's seat of government in the 17th century, the Palace of Governors is the oldest continuously used public building in the United States. Designated a National Historic Landmark, the palace is an adobe structure located in Santa Fe's historic district. Its rustic and simplistic interior exhibits paintings that are among the first known depictions of Spanish colonial life in the United States. Also on display are 19th-century furnishings and a variety of objects reflecting the Spanish colonial, Mexican, and U.S. Territorial periods of the state's history.
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Previously the Amarillo U.S. Post Office and Courthouse, the J.M. Jones Federal Building is considered an outstanding example of art deco and modern architecture. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the building dates to 1939. One of the main reasons to take a peek inside is the six murals atop the lobby walls. They were painted by Julius Woeltz of New Orleans as part of a New Deal program in the 1930s. Other striking features in the lobby include a beautiful yellow terrazzo floor and unusual wormhole marble covering the walls.
A majestic granite structure, the Wisconsin State Capitol is an iconic part of the Madison city skyline. The dome, rising more than 200 feet, is striking enough. But inside, visitors will find council chambers designed to look like the Doge's Palace in Venice, Italy. The walls and ceiling of the governor's conference room are covered with 26 historical and allegorical paintings by Hugo Ballin. The same room includes French walnut furniture and Wisconsin hardwood floors.
Located in Albany, the New York State Capitol was created to be a symbol of the state's prosperous standing in the world after the Civil War. Finished at an astonishing cost of $25 million in 1899, the structure was designed by three architects and includes a mix of styles, among them Classical Romanesque and Renaissance Classical. The staircase alone is a sight to behold, says Michael Lewis of Williams College. Located near the building's western entrance, it took hundreds of stonecutters more than 12 years to complete. The staircase is renowned for the delicate faces carved into sandstone.
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