The Great Western Staircase

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The Great Western Staircase is one of the highlights of the New York State Capitol Building in Albany. Also known as the "Million Dollar Staircase", it took fourteen years to complete at a cost of almost 1.5 million dollars. In 1894, The New York Times called the staircase "the greatest architectural work on this continent." While that may be a bit of an overstatement, the staircase really is amazing.

Henry Hobson Richardson was the original designer, but architect Isaac G. Perry directed its construction and added a significant amount of ornamental carvings. Over 500 stone carvers worked on the project under foreman Louis Hinton.

The staircase is enormous: 119 feet in height and containing 444 steps. The predominate materials are Corsehill freestone, medina sandstone, limestone, and granite. It is illuminated throughout by light fixtures designed by Louis Hinton, and an enormous skylight on the top floor bathes the uppermost levels in natural light.

Portrait busts of great historical figures in the history of New York and the nation adorn the stone work in great profusion along with the faces of the stone carvers' families and friends, and random people from the street. Also present are scenes from American history, various animals, and other symbols. Famous figures portrayed include:

  • Susan B. Anthony
  • Christopher Columbus
  • Benjamin Franklin
  • Alexander Hamilton
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Ulysses S. Grant
  • George Washington
  • Walt Whitman

The sculpture adds a level of detail that makes exploring the staircase a little more quaint and intriguing. The staircase would probably stand as a marvel without it, but it is a nice touch. The stonework itself is massive, but the configuration of the stairways and columns is such that at times the space appears almost ethereal. The numerous arches, elliptical arches, columns, and groins create a dizzying space that easily impresses.

A $2.8 million dollar restoration of the entire staircase was completed in September of 2006. A hundred years of dirt, soot, and grime have been removed from the stone and light fixtures, revealing the original beauty of the materials.

Location
Washington Ave and State Street
Albany, NY 12247

Discussion

Leona Connolly Davis Feb 26, 2011
My greatgrandfather was one of the stone carvers who carved the stone staircases in the Capitol Building. I have never been to Albany to see the staircases, but would love to come. Do you have anymore information on this aspect of the history of the building. Thank you. Sincerely, Leona
anthony Jul 07, 2012
The staircase is about the only thing that is still always open to the public. The best time to view the outstanding work of your greatgrandad and others is just after 5pm. Most of the hardworking :) politicians and other state workersare long out the door by then and you can admire the staircase at you own pace and in a quiet atmosphere. The carvings are beyond anything that could be done at any cost today. Be sure to try to find the very small devil carving that was hidden by one of the stone carvers (although nobody will ever know who or why). Its a great part of the staircases haunted history. Im not a believer in that but it adds to the self tour. Take care!
barbara Sep 04, 2014
my sister and I, in l952, walked from our flat at 58 Elm Street to the Capitol, as we did many times, and somehow we found ourselves inside the staircase, all by ourselves, and we climbed up and up onto the roof level and crawled out thru a window and sat on the ledge, on the outside, looking down onto the street. It was wonderful. I was 8, my sister was 10. We could have fallen so easily. Still today, I wonder how we got inside and up to that place where we could climb out at the roof level. I still have scary dreams about sitting outside on the ledge.
Ken Merriman Jan 08, 2015
My Great and Great Great Grandfather also worked as a Stone Mason and worked on building. I have documented proof that he was working on the building in Sept 1882. I use to work in the NYS Senate there in the 1960's & 1970's.
Linda Thomas Mar 20, 2015
Ken Merriman, my great grandmother was Lydia C. Merriman Stanton. Her father was my great great grandfather, and I was told by Lydia's daughter, Charlotte, that he carved Lydia's face into the staircase. She used to bring him his lunch everyday. Sounds like we might be related to the same man.
Debbie Cook Aug 28, 2015
My great grandfather Ralph Cook was also one of the sculptors who worked on the staircase. He was born in Worcester, England and immigrated to the US after the Civil War. He also has a bronze piece (signed) at Gettysburg.
jJeannie Ryan Oct 31, 2015
Ken Merriman, my grandfather also was a stone mason who worked on the staircase. How did you find documentation for your great great grandfather's time there?
Ina Clausen Dec 11, 2015
I'm listening to a book...Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith by Robert Slayton which is now talking about the history of building the staircase and the stone carvers that were hired in Scotland where the stone came from and England. Fascinating history.
Ken Merriman Apr 26, 2016
Jeannie Ryan,

I am a member of the Capitol District Genealogy Society in Albany NY. As a member I can have searches done on my by other club members at the NYS Library, I live in Florida. You can do the search yourself if you live in Albany. They found my records in the NYS Archives. I guess there was only one ledger available because of the fire at the Capitol Library in 1911 (?) and it contained the pay records for the people that worked on building the Capitol in 1882 and my great grandfather was there on the last page.
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