Architecture, at its best, creates buildings that not only shelter us, but that reflect something of our values or ideals. Churches inspire our eyes to soar upwards, awed by dappled light through stained glass. Banks are designed (well, they used to be designed) to look solid, strong, unshakeable.
State capitols usually feature a central, light-filled rotunda for this very reason. It's a manifestation of our democratic values: government as something open, transparent, accessible, welcoming to all.
And then there's New York.
"Open, accessible and welcoming" are words few would apply to New York's state Capitol. You're more likely to hear things like "labyrinthine," "dark," "can't get anywhere unless you already know where you're going." If we see architecture as a representation of government, then, well, you might say we have the state capitol we deserve.
With that said, it's an absolutely beautiful building. And now we can see a little bit more of it.
Andrew Cuomo's first executive order was to remove some of the barriers his predecessors had erected between the leaders and the public. That included opening up the Hall of Governors, a portrait collection of former state leaders that hangs in the halls nearest to the executive chambers.
Cuomo, apparently, gets the connection between governments and the buildings that house them: "In order to restore faith and trust in government," he said, "we have to tear down barriers that have excluded people from the governing process. Today we take the first step in that effort."
The Hall of Governors has been off-limits since 1995 when George Pataki ordered it closed to the public. Now that it's back open, we went down for a wander earlier this week to see what's been kept from us all those years.
A journey through facial hair
Like other parts of the Capitol, the hall's marble and stonework are rich, warm, and beautiful. But the portraits are the big draw here. They're a reminder that until Paterson came along, we had an unbroken procession of white men at the helm of our state. It's a fascinating journey through the history of facial hair.
There's a respectable handful of U.S. presidents and vice-presidents among the ranks. And there are others whose names we may know better today for the things named after them than for the men themselves (Averell Harriman, Hamilton Fish). Seeing their pictures humanizes them a little. Gov. Harriman was painted with his dog.
George Pataki is the most recent governor to join the ranks; he took his place on the wall in 2009.
And, curiously, there's a portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette. He's around the corner at the end of the hall, across from the state's first governor, George Clinton. Certainly Lafayette is a venerable figure. But he was also not a New York governor.
Well, I guess they had to put him somewhere.
It's also interesting to see who isn't in the Hall of Governors.
Andrew's father, for one. Mario Cuomo has apparently scoffed at the tradition and has refused to be wooed into compliance.
"The question is: Why do a portrait?" he told The New York Times a few years ago. "... Yes, I was the governor, but whatever good things that were done in my 12 years as governor were done by an army of us."
Eliot Spitzer's not there, either.
Sitting for a portrait is not mandatory. Governors traditionally commission a piece for the hall at their own expense after their term expires. The portraits used to be paid for by the city of Albany, but in more recent years the gov (or his donors) picks up the tab.
The Hall of Governors is open to visit without tagging on to an official tour, though those are packed with interesting information.
Why should we go? Because it's open. And it's beautiful. And who knows, you might run into the new governor, who apparently doesn't shy away from spontaneous encounters with the public.
And if it's been a while since you tromped through the rest of the Capitol, go down and take a wander. It's your building, after all.
How to find the Hall of Governors
Enter the Capitol on the State Street side. After the security checkpoint, turn right. Take Senate elevators 3 or 4 to the second floor and you'll tumble out right into the Hall. Or, past the elevators, go up the Senate stairs and on the second floor turn left for the Hall. (To the right at the top of the stairs is the "war room"; detour there to admire the epic struggles on the ceiling.)
Or: Just ask at an information desk and let them direct you.
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