There are spaces in the Capital Region that will always leave me feeling a bit uneasy: my grandmother’s cellar, Guptill’s skating rink, all of Clifton Park. Ever since I was a kid I’ve expected that if the end of the world had to pick a location to begin, it would choose the Concourse level of the Empire State Plaza in Albany. I’m not sure if it’s the sterile whiteness of it all or the fact that it seems like every bad piece of modern art goes there to die. Whatever the reason, even at 31 I get the proverbial heebie-jeebies while traversing those wide open underground byways.
That’s why it’s so fitting that a main entrance to the New York State Capitol Building, one of the most beautiful structures in Albany, sits above this shiny smooth bastion of soullessness; this juxtaposition of late 19th Century artistry and architecture holding down the throbbing emptiness of mid-20th Century blah.
How have I never entered this building? My entire life spent in the Capital Region, and I’ve completely missed out. You’d think I would have gone there on an elementary school field trip at some point, but apparently not. Instead I explored it for the first time on Halloween this year hoping to see a ghost or maybe a governor (or in the very least a governor’s girlfriend). No dice this time. Instead, what I found was a place filled with history, hallways, and lots of hand-carved heads.
The Capitol Building is quite a stunner, with its sandstone carvings and million dollar staircase. When first designed it was predicted that the building could be built in 3 years for approximately $5 million. Turns out it took 32 years at a whopping $25 million, which today would be equivalent to about $500 million. I guess the state had spending issues even back in the late 1800′s. There’s your precedent, Occupy Albany folks.
How could the Million Dollar Staircase (named for, as you may have guessed, its hefty price tag) not be my most favorite spot in this entire building? I was so mesmerized by the intricate work done by the stone masons who carved art out of the sandstone that I almost did exactly what our tour guide told us not to do: tumbled to my death. Note to self – Look down when plodding toward a monstrous, seemingly man-made indoor escarpment. Crisis averted by, of course, my cat-like reflexes. As I regained my balance, our guide continued to talk about the famous and not-so-famous faces carved into the staircase that appear to be pushing their way out of a stony prison (my ultimate nightmare). The detail on these carvings are unbelievable, right down to wrinkled brows and double chins. Two of the most famous faces you’ll see belong to a couple of men who played a large role in saving us from the potential of a country ruled by Southerners, Presidents Lincoln and Grant, their sullen faces looking down at us as if to say “Get it together, New York.”
No matter how strong my completely and utterly irrational phobia of statues is, even I can admit the tremendous skill it took to complete this project.
Did they see a ghost?
Nope. They always look like that.
This was a relatively short tour at about an hour long, and there are a number of places that we weren’t able to see. While we did spend some time learning about the origins of the Capitol’s ghost stories, the craftsman who fell to his death while working on the ceiling in the Assembly Chamber, the caretaker who burned to a crisp in a fourth floor fire, and the fruit seller who willingly plummeted to his ultimate demise off of the Senate staircase after his business went under, I would have loved to have simply sat on a bench in one of the expansive hallways and waited for a spirit to wander my way. I guess now I have a reason to go back. Meanwhile, I’d truy enjoy being able to witness an active session of our legislature. Now THAT would be a true horror show!