While all eyes focus on the soon-to-be new occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., let’s not forget the Union’s 50 other centers of political power. You remember them, those cities whose names have been sealed in your brain since fourth grade.
Granted, state capitals aren’t always glitzy places. As vacation destinations, they probably can’t touch, say, Orlando or the Grand Canyon. What they offer, instead, is the chance to tour the so-called people’s houses—state capitols. These great halls can be nearly as fancy as any historic mansion and as interesting as many museums. Better still, there’s no admission.
As Maryland’s venerable State House prepares to reopen next year following a multimillion-dollar renovation, I thought I’d tell you what to expect there and also about two other capital cities in the region: Harrisburg, PA, and Richmond, VA. Both have recently undergone extensive renovations.
Harrisburg’s capitol, an Italian-Renaissance-style palace filled with incomparable works of art, will bowl you over. Virginia’s, designed by Thomas Jefferson, practically breathes history. Both cities have other attractions, too, and reputations for dining and nightlife. All three destinations get my vote for an enjoyable weekend getaway.
A 9-to-5 town when my husband worked there in the late 1970’s, this city on the Susquehanna River has shaken off the twin traumas of that decade—a terrible flood (Hurricane Agnes) and a tense national emergency (Three Mile Island). Today, there are plenty of reasons to linger downtown after quitting time: dining and nightclubbing along vibrant “Restaurant Row,” catching summer baseball games on City Island, and attending concerts and movies at the sleek Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts. The trip takes about 1 1/2 hours from Baltimore (visithhc.com).
The Capitol: Virtually all of Pennsylvania showed up for the dedication of the Commonwealth’s new $13.5 million capitol on October 4, 1906. So did President Theodore Roosevelt, who gave the keynote address. T.R. was so bullish on the fancy five-story building designed by Philadelphia architect Joseph Huston that he called it “the handsomest state capitol I ever saw.”
The rotunda’s vaulted 272-foot-high dome is modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica and its marble grand staircase and three-tiered gallery echo the Paris Opera House. Elsewhere, the décor is pure Pennsylvania. Some of the state’s most talented artisans—painters, sculptors, and stained-glass artists—created the larger-than-life works gracing the capitol’s interior and exterior spaces: allegorical murals, classical statuary, and intricate skylights. Pennsylvania’s past is writ small in several hundred mosaics embedded in the “Carpet of History,” the Moravian tile floor that stretches the length of the main level.
Our tour group gasped audibly when ushered into the soaring Senate and House chambers, where imported marble walls, gilded columns, stunning murals, and legislators’ original mahogany desks glow in the light of one- and three-ton bronze and crystal chandeliers. Guided tours are offered weekdays on the half hour, 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m.; Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays (use main entrance only) at 9 and 11 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m. Information: 800-868-7672.
The Agenda: On weekdays, introduce yourself to Pennsylvania government at the interactive Welcome Center in the capitol’s new East Wing before taking the 30- to 40-minute tour. (On weekends, when the center is only open to tour-takers, this is the final stop.) As you’ll see, architect Huston envisioned the capitol as a showcase of Renaissance-style artwork. Nearby Susquehanna Art Museum (301 Market St., 717-233-8668), on the other hand, focuses on contemporary art by regional artists and internationally known works such as those on exhibit from the Frederick R. Weisman Foundation (through April 19, 2009). Grab lunch at hip Café Fresco (215 N. Second St., 717-236-2599) on Restaurant Row, where the white-collar crowd noshes on wraps and specialty sandwiches. The cafeteria-style breakfast/lunch spot changes its persona at dinnertime—into a fine-dining restaurant serving Asian-influenced entrées. Fortified, head uphill to The State Museum of Pennsylvania (300 North St., 717-787-4980) for a glimpse at Keystone State heritage, culture, and a towering, angular statue of state founder William Penn.
When searching out dinner options, don’t miss Scott’s Grille The Capitol Steakhouse (212 Locust St., 717-234-7599), where steak-and-martini types meet and greet, and Stock’s on 2nd (211 N. Second St., 717-233-6699). The Fire House Restaurant (606 N. Second St., 717-234-6064) is a local favorite for brews, seafood, and steaks.
Afterward, visit the Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts (222 Market St., 717-214-2787). This state-of-the-art facility also boasts an IMAX theater that shows first-run and science-oriented movies, and a performance hall that hosts concerts as well as comedy, theater, and opera performances. When it’s time to adjourn, head to The Milestone Inn (2701 N. Front St., 717-233-2775), where you’ll find four rooms exuding Jazz-Age style.
This modern city cherishes its past. It’s true, tall buildings now dwarf some downtown landmarks, and the Virginia Commonwealth University campus has grown like kudzu. But statues of the city’s heroes—from J.E.B. Stuart to Arthur Ashe—proudly grace Monument Avenue. And the old brick warehouses that comprised the once-gritty James River waterfront have been renovated as restaurants, pubs, and loft apartments in the trendy Shockoe and Tobacco Row neighborhoods. It’s about a 2 1/2-hour trip from Baltimore (visit.richmond.com).
The Capitol: Diplomat Thomas Jefferson was serving his country in France in 1785 when Virginia asked its native son to plan a new capitol. He envisioned a classical Roman temple—he particularly admired one in Nimes, France—set atop Shockoe Hill overlooking the James. Jefferson found a French draftsman to design the structure, provided Virginia builders with a detailed model of the Nimes temple, and commissioned another Frenchman to create the rotunda’s centerpiece—a life-size marble statue of George Washington.
The Agenda: Begin with a one-hour capitol tour and then go see where the governors live. Guided tours of the Executive Mansion, home to Virginia’s governors since 1813, are offered on select days (dates vary seasonally; call 804-371-8687). Or simply do as we did and admire the stately pale-yellow dwelling at the east end of Capitol Square en route to another executive abode—the Museum and White House of the Confederacy (1201 E. Clay Street, 804-649-1861). Until evicted by Union forces in 1865, Jefferson Davis and his family lived in this modest home. Plan your afternoon maneuvers at local favorite Millie’s Diner (2603 E. Main St., 804-643-5512). Slide into one of the restaurant’s wooden booths and wrap your taste buds around a gourmet sandwich (like the grilled eggplant with gooey melted brie). Baltimore’s adopted son Edgar Allan Poe grew up in Richmond and is celebrated not far from Millie’s at the Poe Museum (1914 E. Main St., 888-213-2763).
For evening fare, lawmakers favor “surf” at Old Original Bookbinder’s (2306 E. Cary St., 804-643-6900), “turf” at Morton’s The Steakhouse (111 Virginia St., 804-648-1662), and sophisticated Southern at Lemaire (in the Jefferson Hotel, 101 W. Franklin St., 804-788-8000).
Schedule a visit to Carytown, the west end’s “Mile of Style” shopping district and home to the beautifully restored Byrd Theatre (2908 W. Cary St., 804-353-9911), built in 1928. For about $2, movie-goers can enjoy recently released films and classic Wurlitzer organ performances. Plan to stay at the Jefferson Hotel (101 W. Franklin St., 804-788-8000), which melds the opulent glamour of an earlier era with fine Southern hospitality.
When the nation’s oldest state capitol that’s still in legislative use reopens in January, consider it your citizenly duty to come see what they’ve done with the nearly 230-year-old place. A visit to the renovated Maryland State House offers a fine excuse to spend a day or a weekend in this nautically minded city on the Severn River. It’s only about 40 minutes from Baltimore (visitannapolis.org).
The capitol isn’t the only thing being refurbished this year in historic Annapolis, where scaffolding has sprouted like after-rain mushrooms. The U.S. Naval Academy is renovating its popular museum in Preble Hall (it will reopen next fall). The city, along with the state Department of Natural Resources, has spiffed up the City Dock area, spending millions to replace piers, plant rain gardens where rows of parking meters stood, and erect a new stage for Navy Band concerts.
The Capitol: Completed in 1779, the State House—known for its imposing wooden dome—holds national as well as Free State significance. From 1783 to 1784, it served as the nation’s Capitol (the only statehouse to do so) when the Continental Congress convened in its Old Senate Chamber. Many of the current renovations are infrastructural (upgrading of heating, air conditioning, and plumbing), but visitors will note changes in the State House’s most hallowed room. In an ongoing restoration of the Old Senate Chamber, workers have temporarily removed a section of plaster to reveal the original 18th-century brick beneath. (Future plans call for other rooms to reflect different eras in the building’s history.) Tours will resume when the State House reopens for the new legislative session. Check with the State House Visitors’ Center (410-974-3400) for the 2009 tour schedule.
The Agenda: For now—and for the next year—visitors can follow the progress of ongoing State House restoration at an exhibit developed by the Maryland State Archives. “Four Centuries of History in the Maryland State House,” featuring capitol lore and artifacts, is on display weekdays at the House of Delegates’ Building (6 Bladen St.; for exhibit information, 410-974-3400). Stretch your legs with a guided or self-guided tour of the U.S. Naval Academy (52 King George St., 410-293-8687). At the Visitor Center off Prince George Street, pick up maps of the campus and sign up for guided 75-minute tours of “the Yard.” Highlights include the magnificent chapel (another dome dominating the city skyline) and other handsome beaux-arts buildings reflecting more than 100 years of naval history and tradition. Have lunch at the Academy’s Drydock Restaurant in Dahlgren Hall or chew pastrami with the regulars at Chick & Ruth’s Delly (165 Main St., 410-269-6737). In the afternoon, hit the shops and galleries of Main Street and Maryland Avenue. The Marion Warren Gallery (14 State Circle, 410-280-1414 or 443-994-6504) exhibits and sells Warren’s evocative photographs of the Chesapeake and mid-20th-century Annapolis.
For dinner, tops on lawmakers’ lists are two steakhouses, Lewnes’ (401 Fourth St., 410-263-1617) and Ruth’s Chris (301 Severn Ave., 410-990-0033), both located across Spa Creek in Eastport. Annapolis’s individualistic maritime neighborhood is also home to The Rockfish (400 Sixth St., 410-267-1800), renowned locally for its innovative ways with fresh seafood.
When the sun sets over the yardarm, skippers retire to Boatyard Bar & Grill (400 Fourth St., 410-216-6206), Eastport’s “everybody knows your name” pub for boaters and bay lovers. This lively, gleaming-wood bar/restaurant stays open until midnight daily. For overnighters, the Robert Johnson House (1756), overlooking the State House, is one of three elegantly restored 18th-century buildings that operate as Historic Inns of Annapolis (58 State Circle, 410-263-2641).