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North Dakota Capitol-The Skyscraper on the Prairie

Posted by Annie Bennett 3/8/2017

The North Dakota State Capitol is the tallest building in North Dakota and is known as the “Skyscraper on the Prairie.” The view from the top of the capitol allows one to see the beautiful North Dakota landscape for miles. The building itself has an interesting history and unique features.

New Construction

The current North Dakota State Capitol was built after the first building burned down in December 1930. “This building was located just a few yards northeast of where the current capitol building is located,” says Cindy Solberg, North Dakota State Capitol tour guide.

“North Dakota’s current capitol was built during the depression,” says Solberg. In 1931, the Legislative Assembly gathered funds from numerous sources, including insurance, income from the sale and rental of land assigned to capitol development from statehood, and the decades-old capitol building fund.

In June 1932, the construction contract was awarded to Lundoff-Bicknell Company from Cleveland, Ohio, and construction began shortly afterward. 

Capitol commissioners wanted to use North Dakota building materials. However, state brick makers were unable to produce enough materials to keep construction on schedule, forcing capitol commissioners to select materials made outside the state. Solberg says, “The exterior of the capitol is covered in Bedford white limestone, which matched the Liberty Memorial Building, the only other building on the capitol grounds at the time. They also used Rosetta black granite from Wisconsin around the foundations of the tower and Minnesota granite around the front steps and tower.”

The capitol was completed in 1934, on time, and was $400 under its $2 million limit, a mere 46 cents per cubic foot.

The capitol is 242 feet – or 19 stories – tall. The outside dimensions of the tower are 95 feet by 95 feet. The Legislative Wing, on the west side of the capitol, is three stories high. The tower and Legislative Wing are joined together by the Memorial Hall. The Judicial Wing, added in 1981, is four stories tall.

The Tower and Administrative Offices

The main entrance to the capitol is located inside the underpass on the south side of the building. Just inside is a long corridor filled with the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider recipients. “These recipients are selected by the governor, secretary of state and director of the State Historical Society of North Dakota,” says Solberg. “It is the highest award given to those who have influenced the state.”

The upper floors of the capitol contain offices for elected officials, departments, agencies and their staff. There are 15 legislative meeting rooms located throughout the capitol. Each room features a photo of its namesake, a point of interest in North Dakota.

The 19th floor is an observation deck with some incredible views of Bismarck. “On a clear day, you can see for 30 to 35 miles,” says Solberg. In addition to the view, the top floor has photos of the capitol construction, important events and historic Bismarck. Visitors are no longer allowed on the two balconies. Solberg says, according to an article in the Bismarck Tribune in 1965, kids were throwing snowballs and someone threw a glass soda bottle, which hit a car windshield. Shortly after, the balconies were locked and have been ever since.

“During the summer months, visitors enjoy the view from above of the red and white petunias on the capitol mall that say North Dakota,” says Solberg. She says approximately 11,000 people visit the observation deck annually.

Memorial Hall

Memorial Hall, located on the first floor, has Travertine marble used extensively. The interior of the capitol was designed by architect Edgar Miller from the Chicago area. “Miller used an Art Deco theme,” says Solberg. “The Art Deco design is based off the finding of King Tut’s tomb, which was found in the 1920s. A lot of brass and clean lines are used in this type of design.”

When designing the interior, Miller combined North Dakota prairie into the Art Deco design, and these details can be found throughout the spaces he designed. “Hanging from the ceiling are five bronze chandeliers, which each depict a head of wheat,” says Solberg. “Each fixture has 100 lightbulbs and weighs 1,000 pounds.”

“The 16 brass columns in Memorial Hall are unique, and the black Belgium marble wall behind the column is used like a curtain to show off the columns,” says Solberg. Along this wall is the Great Seal of North Dakota, added in 2006.

The east end of the first floor hosts the offices of the governor, the secretary of state and the attorney general. The doors of the elevators on the first and second floors are solid brass. The figures on the doors represent different eras in North Dakota pioneer history, including American Indians, buffalo hunters, the frontier army, railroads and wagons, farm families, miners and construction workers, and grain grown in North Dakota.

Judicial Wing

The Judicial Wing, added to the east side in 1981, hosts the Supreme Court and Library, as well as offices. The wing cost $11 million to complete. “Because this wing was added so much later, it doesn’t have the same design as the other part of the capitol,” says Solberg.

According to Solberg, the foyer on the east side has Indiana limestone on the interior walls, which is the same material used on the building’s exterior.

“The Supreme Court courtroom is one of the places you can only see on a tour,” says Solberg. “However, anyone can come and watch a hearing; the docket is online.”

Legislative Wing

The Legislative Wing, located on the west end, hosts the Legislative Assembly Hall, as well as the chambers of both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Solberg notes the North Dakota State Capitol is unique in the fact that the House and Senate chambers are located across the hall from each other. “Most other state capitols have them on opposite ends of the building.”

The House of Representatives chamber features walls covered in American chestnut, and the rostrum and furniture are made of American walnut. Ninety-four desks occupy the chamber floor, and the balcony can accommodate 248 people. “There are 94 desks because there are 47 districts in North Dakota and two representatives for each district,” says Solberg. “The lighting, designed by Miller, represents a full moon and stars over a prairie sky.”

Senate chambers are covered in English oak, and the podium and furniture are made of American oak. There are 47 desks on the floor (one for each district), and the balcony can accommodate 184 people.

Other Buildings and Trails

Other buildings located on the 132-acre capitol complex include the Liberty Memorial Building (the oldest building on the grounds), State Office Building, Department of Transportation Building, North Dakota Heritage Center, and a new governor’s residence scheduled for completion in November 2017.

“The grounds also have an Arboretum Trail, which allows pedestrians to view and identify 100 species of trees and shrubs found around the state,” says Solberg.

How to Visit

Solberg has been giving tours since June 2015. “I really love being able to show people how truly beautiful our state capitol is and getting people excited about the building and history.”

Tours of the capitol, which are free and open to the public, are available year round on weekdays at 9 a.m., 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. There are additional tours during the summer. Walk-ins are welcome; check-in is located at the Information Desk located on the ground floor. Reservations are requested for large groups. For more information, call 701-328-2480.

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