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Lighting the Stone

By Royce A. Williams

Capitol Rotunda

Photo by: Andrew Rafkin, courtesy of
Idaho Capitol Commission

...the great white light of conscience must be allowed to shine and by its interior illumination make clear the path of duty...

—John Everett Tourtellotte, Capitol architect, 1913

Light is the signature of Idaho’s Capitol building.

Capturing light, which is nowhere because it is everywhere, posed Tourtellotte’s greatest challenge in the design of the Capitol. The building required the heaviness of stone so that it would remain through time as a singular example of Idahoans’ spirit and enduring commitment to good government. Nothing, however, blocks out light quite as well as stone does.

While Tourtellotte knew that stone would be the best holding pen for light, he knew, too, that light can only be invited in; it cannot be held in any space. Extending every invitation to light, but doing that and keeping the stone’s qualities of strength and endurance must have kept Tourtellotte awake nights.

It is unclear whether or not the answer to this puzzle came to Tourtellotte in a flash or after a long inner struggle between clashing symbols. Some of his writing suggests a long struggle to meld the two concepts. Writing about the ancient architecture of Egypt, Greece and Rome, he saw the love of light and the effects it could create when viewed in outside light, but he had a sour opinion of the inside of these buildings, calling the interiors damp, gloomy, cold, mysterious, even superstitious.

Writing about Idaho’s Capitol at its grand opening, Tourtellotte said the building “is not a cave with ornamental colonnades on the interior standing in superstitious darkness and gloom; neither is it a decorative shell enclosing a gloomy unornamented interior, damp cold and uninviting….

“The interior is flooded with light during the day and at night is ablaze with brilliancy without shadow or dark nooks,” he continues. He made constant references to light, both in terms of making the work that went on inside the building easier to get done and as a symbolic reference to that work being open and clearly visible to the citizens of the state.

John E. Tourtellotte shortly before he moved to Boise from a Connecticut farm

John E. Tourtellotte shortly before he moved to
Boise from a Connecticut farm.
Photo courtesy: Tourtellotte Family collection

When there was some doubt about the appropriation being sufficient to include the cupola atop the Capitol, consultants were called in from east of the Mississippi. They said a good chunk of money could be saved by losing the cupola. But Tourtellotte saw this piece of the construction as the source of what he called “heavenly light.” The arguments and counter arguments are unclear, but obviously Tourtellotte dug in his heels on the cupola, and it still lights the huge rotunda. And white is the dominant color inside the building, almost luring more light, either plain or heavenly. Sky lights on the east and west sides of the Capitol (added in 1920) light the House of Representatives and the State Senate chambers. Most early elected officials working in the building were farmers and ranchers, so they didn’t need a watch. The angle of the light told them when it was time to go to work, to break for lunch, and when to go home for the day.

What the light lights inside the building is very subtle color, mostly used as trim to the white spaces. The color is lit; it never competes with the light. In the compass on the floor of the rotunda is gray marble that matches the Sawtooths, green marble that matches sagebrush, and restricted use of red marble that suggests certain species of salmon.

The exterior of the building takes advantage of free light. It is hard sandstone quarried from Table Rock just east of the Capitol. Its color blends into the foothills behind the building, but is cut to stand out from its surroundings. The stone on the ground floor is cut to resemble log construction in pioneer cabins, then the blocks, quarried by prisoners, climb 208 feet to the golden eagle forever preparing to launch itself from the cupola.

It is hard to pin an architectural style onto Tourtellotte, and he liked it that way. In other buildings he designed before the Capitol — the old Park School in Boise, the Carnegie Library in Boise, Shoshone Episcopal Church, Mackay Episcopal Church, St. John Cathedral in Boise — there is every style from Egyptian to Prairie, sometimes a variety of styles found in a single building. A Gothic arch in a Greek building might suggest a clash of styles, but apparently Tourtellotte found such mixing a challenge. More often than not, he made it work.

Idaho’s Capitol is generally referred to as Beaux Arts (Fine Arts in plain English). But that’s a handy handle. Tourtellotte took full advantage of the plural arts and fitted together whatever architectural styles he considered fine. The fitting together of styles usually had a reasonable and overriding principle that required more attention than a particular style.

In the case of Idaho’s Capitol, that overriding principle is light.

Tourtellotte puts it this way: “(It) is flooded with light. Its rotunda, corridors and interior as a whole is nearer perfect in this respect than any building of its kind perhaps in the world.”