Everyone’s Palace: The Indiana State House Transcends and Defines Time

Two weeks ago, Greencastle’s high school students journeyed east across the rolling plains along US 40 in three of those long, yellow school buses: engineering marvels masterfully designed to both waste fuel and keep all occupants as miserable as possible. Braving the now interminably long drive in swirling temperatures cranked out by the bus’ heater—ranging from a brisk low somewhere in the 30s to an almost tropical high topping out just above 50—we jostled and bounced and smacked into everything around us: the seat back facing us, the seat rest behind us, the window to one side, and the poor souls sitting beside us on the other.

—–Our destination was the Indiana State House, and a morning-long tour of the rotunda, both legislative chambers, the state supreme court, and maybe an executive office or two. As a senior English teacher, my schedule allows me to go on this trip almost every year, and I’ve now been making this journey for over a decade. Despite my personal frustration with the “wrong side of history politics” that often comes out of that building, I still look forward to my trips there, and this year proved to be no different than those which preceded it.

The interior of the Indiana State House is one of most mesmerizing architectural creations in the Midwest.

—–Once we pulled into the Robert Orr Plaza surrounding Senate Avenue, disembarked, and then slowly sauntered our way through the agonizingly slow metal detection process—special shout out to all the international terrorists out there for creating a world so paranoid that we must now treat 17-year-old kids from a small college town as if they’re bearing AK-47’s and dynamite belts—we finally formed the semblance of a line and meandered our way out of the serpentine hallways running throughout the building’s basement. In moments, we gathered under the patchwork glass reflecting sunlight which enters through the dome.

If we tried to build a building like this today—on taxpayer dollars—we would end up with a bland box coated in drywall, particle-board, and cheap rubber tiles.

—–If you’ve never been to the state capitol building, the rotunda is arguably one of the most beautiful architectural vistas in Indiana (granted, many who’ve been to the West Baden hotel may disagree). Lording over us are eight symbolic statues, archaic-looking men and women adorned with robes sporting stoic Greek and Roman faces. They represent everything from art to law to agriculture to education: all the obligations of state government. Along the walls hang some plaques of the both the thought-provoking and the inspirational variety. A memorial recognizing all the police officers and firefighters who’ve died in the line of duty stir up feelings of the latter, while a tribute to former presidential contender Wendel Wilkie triggers the former. And standing in front of the hands-down centerpiece, the Indiana state constitution, was our primary tour guide, deep in the midst of quizzing the students.

Ornate statues representing the foundations and responsibilities of government watch over the rotunda.

—–Some years, we get guides who “get it” and treat the seniors like the adults they mostly are. They explain the facts and let the mere fascination of those facts speak for themselves. The wooden frame enclosing the constitution, for example, was made from the elm tree in Corydon—the state’s first capital—which lawmakers huddled under during the intense June heat in 1816. Almost all of the woodwork throughout the building for that matter comes from Indiana trees…mostly oak. Furthermore, much of the building is made from limestone quarried in the Hoosier state, including the ten-ton cornerstone shipped to Indy from my home town near Spencer. And the stained-glass dome above us: prior to the 1988 renovation of the building, much of it was virtually blackened due to decades of accumulated coal soot. History bubbles out of every square inch of the place, out of the pores of the ornate door frames out of the microscopic cracks from the limestone and New England marble.

—–This year, our seniors didn’t get as many of those details. This time our guide was one of the “other” kind: those who think all kids function like kindergartners.

—–“What happened on this year?” the guide said holding a letter-sized sheet of white paper with “1816” printed and big, black, block font. One of the students near me turned my way and flashed me a please just shoot me expression. I wasn’t going to give him the pleasure, and I returned his look with my own, No…you please shoot me instead.

—–Regardless how the tour-guide crap-shoot turned out, what remained…what always remains…is the building itself. Days before we left, I told all my students that the inside of that structure would be one of the most amazing designs they had ever seen. And while some of my more world-traveled students, many raised by DePauw faculty, may undoubtedly compare the state house to Westminster Abbey or the Sistine Chapel and leave feeling only “reasonably” impressed, for most of my charges the state house will likely stand their only trip to something grander than a Walmart or a Sam’s Club.

The illuminated dome welcomes visitors to the majesty of the building.

—–And that strikes me as a bit of a tragedy, really. The state house was built during the Gilded Age: a controversial period in American history which stands as either the greatest era in American industrial might (if you’re a supply-side worshipper), or a period of some of the most obscene examples of economic inequality and instability (if you’re a Robert Riech reader), or a period of dumb luck for the handful of titans who reached maturity at the time (if you happen to dig some of Malcolm Gladwell’s work). Wherever you fall on this economic Richter Scale, what is true is that, if we tried to build a building like this today—on taxpayer dollars—we would end up with a bland box coated in drywall, particle-board, and cheap rubber tiles. And as we moved from the staircases wide enough for semi-trucks to the ornately decorated supreme court chambers (complete with its $30,000 carpeting) the one basic reality which never left the minds of any of us on that tour was that we would be leaving this government building to return to our own government building: a dung-heap of a public high school (a many times remodeled dung-heap to be sure, but a mold-stricken dung-heap nonetheless).

—–In fact, the closest that modern building design comes to the breathtaking beauty of the statehouse now exists in the form of downtown, hotel lobbies, or the taxpayer-funded playgrounds for the likes of Paul George and Andrew Luck. Or perhaps we still see it in a handful of mega-high-priced legal offices. Wherever such design takes place, one modern truism stands: you can enjoy it if you can pay to get in. Even though the entry way to the Conrad is impressive, it’s only for those who can afford to be there.

—–The state house, by contrast, belongs to everyone, and as long as the metal detector allows you in, you have the right to absorb as much of its majesty as you can take. And while I’m still trying to make my peace with the economically screwed up era in which it was built, I nonetheless find myself thankful that it’s there, and I’m even more grateful that…no matter how out of touch the recent batch of “leaders” we’ve sent there may be, it still stands as our building—a place in which we all have the right to enter. And yes, one of these days I will spend a night in West Baden, and I’ll cross the pond and see Westminster Abbey (and maybe even that Sistine Chapel as well), but I remain convinced to this day that I will never find a structure as mesmerizing and inspirational as the seat of our state government.


Photo Acknowledgments:

Sculpture of Justice by Tricia Gilson is in the public doman.

Picture of the Indiana State House by Jasont82 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Interior hallway of the Indiana State House by HalloweenHJB is licensed under CC BY 3.0

Author: Donovan Wheeler

Wheeler proudly teaches English to a horde of bright and lovably obnoxious high school seniors in a small college town. He has written in the past for Indiana on Tap and STATE Magazine, and is an occasional contributor to NUVO, Indy's alternate news website. Since picking up the guitar three years, he can now play a dozens songs while singing them quite badly.

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