Jim Stembridge loves state capitols. You will love them too, once you read his new book about the 50 of them. This isn’t a heavy-duty, hardbound coffee-table book that’s hard to fit on your lap. It isn’t filled with endless facts and figures that you simply don’t want to wade through. Nor is it one of those slapped together 101’s, where inspiration unfortunately gives way to glib.
Like Little Bear’s porridge, this book is Just Right. You will enjoy reading it, and you will be satisfied with the logistics and consistency of it. I’ve always wanted a collection of capitol photographs. This book offers that left hand page, alphabetical order by state a full-page color exterior shot. You can flip through the book and easily find the one you want, or, just enjoy them one after the other. These are not glam shots, touched up to a too-pretty perfection. Stembridge puts you there; you get a sense of place, as though you were standing on the sidewalk beside him.
You cannot look at Stembridge’s photos without instantly getting a feel for what that capitol represents, the history behind it, the thinking of the citizens of that particular state, at that particular time. Some of the buildings are magnificent showpieces, elegantly columned, domed, and gilded in gold. Some are slender, modern, high-rises of efficiency. Some are skewed far from the norm, designed to represent their connection to the culture, or the land.
The right hand pages of Stembridge’s book tell the rest of the story. Who designed these buildings? When were they built? What are they made of? How much did they cost? Is artwork displayed inside? Murals? Statuary? Photos set within the text give you a glimpse of the interiors; gaze upward into breathtaking curved rotundas, marvel at sweeping staircases, study the intricate detail of a hand-carved wooden door. There is color, warmth, and feeling throughout.
Stembridge tells about the heroics and the scandal too; the bullet holes in the wall, the mural overhead that’s hidden now, the one spindle on the staircase that was installed upside down. Do you know about Petunia #1? Where can you see a fossil swirl embedded in the floor? What is the Quadriga? Where can you find the Goddess of Liberty? What is scagliola, and where was it used?
Stembridge traveled all over the United States to find these things. Accompanied by Ruthless, his big black dog, he took thousands of photos, interviewed hundreds of people, jotted endless notes; and then meticulously fashioned everything together with prose that flows, to share with readers everywhere.
I recommend this book for every library, school, and household. It is a good read, but not only that, it is an important read. Stembridge shows us, as the title says, the architecture of representative government. State capitols are symbols of democracy. Being knowledgeable about them not only improves your wizardry with parlor games, it raises your confidence in the processes of government, despite the ups and downs of daily headlines. As Stembridge stacks present against past in Fifty State Capitols, we see the foundation is secure.
Linda L Burton, July 2011,
Capital Cities USA, Birmingham, AL