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Looking heavenward from the rotunda. You not only walk up there, you walk way up ABOVE there.
Looking heavenward from the rotunda. You not only walk up there, you walk way up ABOVE there.

Climb the Statehouse Dome

Field review by the editors.

Topeka, Kansas

The best-known attraction in the Kansas Statehouse is the mural "Tragic Prelude," depicting abolitionist John Brown as a wild-eyed, crazed giant -- an image familiar to students of art and history, and to those who remember the cover of the first Kansas album.

Looking down seven stories from the lower dome.
Looking down seven stories from the lower dome.

More breathtaking, however, is the guided climb to the top of the building's dome. Kansas has the second-tallest government dome in the USA -- higher even than the U.S. Capitol in Washington -- and it's the only one that offers visitors such a dizzying ascent.

"It's all stairs; a considerable number of stairs," said Joe Brentano, who's been leading visitors to the top of the dome since guided tours began in January 2006. At first, he said, Kansas only planned to open the dome for a couple of months. But the free tours proved so popular that they were continued, and by the end of the year they were made permanent.

Statehouse Dome.
Spiral staircase ascends to the cupola.

There are 296 stairs in all -- roughy equal to climbing a ten story building -- and they don't even begin until you reach the fifth floor. "That's where we give our safety rules," said Joe, who has the even-keel manner and soothing cadence of Mr. Rogers. "We tell people, 'You don't have to hurry; stop where you're comfortable; it's okay if you don't want to go all the way up there,'" he said. Visitors are also cautioned that from this point on there are no bathrooms and no places to sit.

Early 20th century graffiti, scrawled on the dome's support columns.
Early 20th century graffiti, scrawled on the dome's support columns.

The average person might say, "I could climb ten stories in a big office building; so what?" But the stairs to the summit of the Kansas dome are not normal; they're increasingly open and narrow and scary the higher you go.

"A lot of people don't realize that the glass dome above the rotunda is an inner dome," said Joe. That dome is over 200 feet high, any yet there's entire other, hidden, upper dome above it that acts as a kind of attic, or thermos, or pressure hull of a submarine, sheltering the glass panels and sucking up the heat from the Statehouse below, which was built long before air conditioning was invented. Joe said that tours are occasionally cancelled on July and August afternoons because the upper dome simply gets too hot. "We don't want anyone to pass out."

Entering via a locked door, the tour climbs along a curving staircase ascending the rim of the lower dome. It's here that visitors first notice graffiti, countless examples made with pencil, chalk, paint, and pocket knives on the backs of the ornate columns that support the dome's weight. All of it is over 50 years old. The dome, said Joe, was open to anyone, unsupervised, until the mid-20th-century, and it was during those early decades that visitors left their marks. Even the sculptor of the Indian statue atop the dome, Richard Bergen, signed his name on a wall. A young Dwight Eisenhower supposedly wrote his name, too, but no one's been able to find it yet.

Joe said that several older visitors have told hm that they climbed the dome alone as kids, but no tour-taker has yet confessed that a specific piece of vintage vandalism was theirs.

Upper reaches of the catwalk in the upper dome.
Upper reaches of the catwalk in the upper dome.

At the seventh floor the stairs enter the upper dome, still hugging the perimeter, and visitors find themselves ascending higher and higher above the big glass hemisphere below. "It has a kind of beautiful symmetry," said Joe. Roadside America tour-taker Roger Crook -- a history buff who visits presidential libraries and legislative structures with his wife, Sue -- had a different reaction. "Losing one's footing could easily result in serious injury or death," he told us. "The glass inner dome with its steel frame would likely cut you to pieces, then let your soggy remains fall the rest of the way though the inner dome, many stories, to the basement floor."

Platform atop the inner dome is a convenient bailout point.
Platform atop the inner dome is a convenient bailout point for those who don't want to go any higher.

Joe, calm as always, reassured us that no such thing has ever happened, and that even if someone did fall onto the lower dome, they wouldn't fall through; the glass is a half-inch thick. The only casualties on dome tours, he said, have been dropped smartphones.

At the ninth floor the stairs reach what Joe called "the most breathtaking and awesome part of the tour" -- and what Roger described as "pure terror" -- a staircase-catwalk that hangs in mid-air high above the glass dome below. It stretches from the outer wall to a claustrophobic set of spiral stairs that dangle from the highest point in the ceiling, and then ascend through the roof to the dome's cupola. "That's probably the hardest point," Joe said of the spiral staircase. "If you have any vertigo, going around and around in that open space is not going to make it any easier."

The prize, once you make it to the top, is fresh air and a circular observation platform that offers a 360-degree panorama of Topeka. It's an unobstructed view: the capitol cupola is the tallest thing in town, and has been since it was completed in 1903. "We've had a lot of people in their nineties get to the top," said Joe, "and they're very proud to announce that fact to us."

"All we are is dust in the wind!"

Of course, then everybody has to go back down the way they came, which, Joe conceded, offers its own set of dizzy thrills.

"Our capitol was built for public access," said Joe, his matter-of-fact explanation for why Kansas reopened its dome while other government structures -- such as the Statue of Liberty's torch and the Lincoln Memorial cave -- have long been sealed shut. It's a refreshingly damn-the-lawyers approach, and it rewards those who reach the top with a well-deserved sense of accomplishment, although their legs might feel like lead the next morning.

Even Roger, after completing the tour, was enthusiastic; his earlier moment of terror forgotten. We can picture him at the dome's zenith, stepping out onto the observation platform, a perfect vantage point to bellow John-Brown-like proclamations of triumph to the citizenry of Topeka.

"I'd definitely do it again," Roger said.

[Thanks to Roger Crook for his Field Reporting]

Also see: Kansas Stairs Going Down: The Big Well

Climb the Statehouse Dome

Kansas State Capitol

319 SW 8th Ave., Topeka, KS
Kansas State Capitol. Free parking in the garage beneath the building. Entrance on the south side of SW 8th Ave. just east of its intersection with SW Harrison St. Parking spaces may be limited Jan.-May when the legislature is in session. Enter the building (security screening) on the north side of the Capitol, facing 8th Ave. The Dome Tour begins on the fifth floor.
M-F 9:15-3:15, Sa 10:15-3:15 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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