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ARKANSAS SIGHTSEEING: A Capitol idea

There’s no better time to tour the building from which Arkansas is governed — virtually, self-guided or guided by Jack Schnedler | February 2, 2021 at 1:53 a.m.
The Arkansas State Capitol is entered via the tunnel under the massive staircase. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Marcia Schnedler)

While strolling the corridors of the Arkansas State Capitol, visitors with a sharp sense of humor may be tempted to spin a joke from a sign on the office door of Dennis Milligan.

During renovation of the state treasurer's second-floor workspace, the notice on a red background warns: "Danger. Hard Hat Area."

Cynics are welcome to jest that any private citizen venturing anywhere near any legislative body always ought to wear a hard hat for protection from misbegotten lawmaking. That jape would reflect the rather low opinions that voters nationwide are said to hold of their legislators.

Whether cynical or reverential, visitors can explore the four floors of the domed landmark completed in 1915. They should first download the detailed 20-page "Arkansas State Capitol Self Guided Tour" ­booklet, or pick one up at the Visitors Services Center in the ground-floor lobby. Hours are 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday.

Capitol entry in the tunnel beneath the monumental staircase requires passing through a metal detector. There's no sign of any stricter security that may have been imposed after the U.S. Capitol's violent Jan. 6 invasion in Washington.

On the state Capitol's fourth floor, reached by elevator or stairs, are entrances to the visitor galleries of the Senate and House chambers. Viewers can observe any session that might be underway — an experience sometimes akin to watching grass grow or molasses seep. The two-story settings, equipped with electronic voting screens, provide an aura of important work being pursued.

The fourth floor also houses several enjoyable exhibits of museum quality. One of them, "Arkansas Through the Years, by the Numbers," is packed with decade-by-decade facts from 1820 to 2010. In 1820, Arkansas Territory's most populous county was Lawrence, with 5,606 residents. Pulaski County's population was a mere 1,923. Since 1880, however, Pulaski County has boasted the largest population.

"Arkansans at War" offers a procession of panels recounting the state's role in American conflicts running from the War of 1812 to Operation Desert Storm. More peaceful are the 12 "Arkansas State Symbols" showcases picturing favorites declared by the General Assembly over the decades.

Teetotalers may cheer at the designated State Beverage, which is milk. There's no official State Wine, but imbibers can note that the State Grape is the Cynthiana. There is a State Grain: rice. The State Fruit/Vegetable is the South Arkansas vine-ripe pink tomato. The fiddle is the State Musical Instrument. Among more arcane categories is the State Historic Cooking Vessel, namely the Dutch oven.

The chandelier in the State Capitol rotunda hangs from a 73-foot chain. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Marcia Schnedler)
The chandelier in the State Capitol rotunda hangs from a 73-foot chain. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Marcia Schnedler)

The barrel-vaulted skylights on the third floor, where legislators enter their respective chambers, are graced by four arced murals. Created by the studio of Paul Heerwagen, they were the only public art commissioned for the new Capitol building. Their themes are Education, Justice, War and Religion.

The Capitol's second floor and much of the first floor are devoted to offices of top state officials. In the first-floor's rotunda hang large portraits of four former governors: Bill Clinton, Frank White, Jim Guy Tucker and Mike Huckabee. Clinton's youthful mien serves as a reminder that he was elected governor at the tender age of 32.

In the southwest corner of the rotunda stands a lighted stained-glass replica of the Great Seal of the State of Arkansas, adopted by the General Assembly 157 years ago. It contains 16 elements linked to the state's history and economy, including the goddess of liberty, an angel of mercy and the sword of justice. There is no room for cynicism here.

For details about touring the Arkansas State Capitol, visit sos.arkansas.gov. Another booklet maps out a walking tour of the Capitol grounds.

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