The $1 Million Staircase


Two years after the Civil War, New York wanted a new state Capitol building in the city of Albany. Architect Thomas Fuller submitted the winning design, which he said he'd build in four years for $4 million. Ten years and $10 million later, only two exterior walls were standing. Fuller was fired.

Not before 4 architects spent 32 years and $25 million (or, $711+ million today) was the new building complete, and only then, because fed-up New York Governor Teddy Roosevelt simply declared construction would end in 1899.

When TR yelled "Quittin' time!" New York's Capitol in Albany cost more than the US Capitol in Washington. It cost more than any building on the continent. But it contained remarkable elements at every turn.

The most astonishing was the Great Western Staircase, also known as The $1 Million Staircase.

444 steps high, the Staircase took 14 years to build, and by some accounts, cost closer to 2 million than 1. That's roughly $43 million today.

To climb the Staircase is to be transported inside the mind of M.C. Escher.

More than 500 master stone carvers from Italy, England, and Scotland built the Staircase. They decorated it with the faces of 77 noteworthy Americans,

including Presidents ...

Generals ...

and Poets.

Among the Staircase's famous figures are some 100 other faces called "The Capitol Unknowns." Most are believed to be family members of the stone carvers. Only two have ever been positively identified.

The Unknowns are just one part of what makes the $1 Million Staircase like one priceless pane of glass ...

... in the New York State Capitol ...

... an historic hall of mirrors ...

reflecting history from floor to ceiling.


Atop the State Street hill in Albany, the New York State Capitol remains a bustling headquarters of government and an achievement in art and architecture nearly 150 years after its unusual construction process began. Certainly, the influence of four architects working on one building for more than three decades produced something of a "mashup" final product ; varying styles combine under one roof here as they rarely do.

Some find this combination comical, others beautiful - but fascinating either way. Ultimately, the Capitol's aesthetic diversity proved to foreshadow the larger downtown Albany landscape, because today, the seat of the Empire State government is an anchor to what's known as the Empire State Plaza ...

... an enormous outdoor mall where classical and modern live side by side. It's a sight worth seeing, with stories everywhere. For more info on the NYS Capitol, click here. Many thanks to our tour guide Theresa and everyone at the Empire State Visitors Center last week. Check it out, they offer fabulous free tours.

words & pictures by @TweedTypewriter (Except for the Eschers) #places #art #architecture #history #newyork #albany #creative For more:

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