By Roger Barlow,
While discussing any structure that has stood for nearly two centuries, new is most definitely not the first descriptor that comes to mind. Yet, this elegant nod to the Greek Temple of Minerva Polias at Priene contains not only symbolic gestures to the ancient world, but also contains a great revival showcase of Kentucky furniture and precious works of art.
When opened for the Legislature in December of 1829, no one could have predicted that nearly two centuries later it would still be standing proudly in Frankfort’s public square. The Old Capitol is not just a building, it is a building with soul — the soul of our community — a kinship of sorts bringing its residents together.
As the third Capitol on the site, it has witnessed assassinations, elections, historic speeches and funerals of America’s most famous frontiersman and a U.S. vice president; it stands proudly as a testament to Kentucky craftsmanship, accomplishment and spirit against all odds.
The young Kentucky-born architect, Gideon Shryock (pronounced Shrock), Kentucky’s first professionally trained architect most likely never dreamed that his first architectural design would still be astounding visitors so many years later, just as its predecessors of the archaic Greek lands.
Upon entering through the exaggerated 13-foot tall doors, you find that you have stepped into 19th century Kentucky where political connections and deals were hashed out just as quickly as they were broken.
Marvel at the graceful self-supporting stone staircase that rises and splits to double circular elegance. An engineering triumph that is still incredulous even by 21st century standards.
Even for those that are not touched by history, I would challenge even the most critical of us to ascend those stairs and not feel in their own soul a true sense of pageantry.
In 2009, a five year “temporary” exhibit entitled “Great Revivals: Kentucky Decorative Arts and Treasures” opened to great fanfare. Albeit temporary initially, the exhibit remained in darkened former courtrooms. Beginning in summer of this year, the exhibit will once again open and shine brightly for the waiting eyes of its guests.
The exhibit brings forth in keen chronological fashion the distinct revival periods of Federalism, Greek, Rococo, Gothic, and the Aesthetic Movement. You will find 113 rarely-seen treasures — humble to extravagant — from the collections of the Kentucky Historical Society and discover how the ever-evolving social norms of each period influenced furniture, art, china and silver.
Perhaps one of the highlights of the special exhibit is the rosewood veneer and gilded Kuhn and Ridgeway harp piano — quite possibly the pinnacle of Victorian extravagance. This extremely rare piano once belonged to the parents of Confederate General John Hunt Morgan and was featured in the Kentucky Building at the Columbian Exhibition also known as the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. This unique masterpiece combines the harp string form with the familiarity of a piano for ease of play.
Also on display is a circa 1880 brilliantly-colored epergne (pronounced Ay-purn), used by families of status on a dining table to display flowers or fruit. When received by the museum, this brilliantly-colored specimen was in filthy broken pieces, but with careful conservation is in exquisite form once again.
Additionally, selected original watercolors by Frankfort’s own Paul Sawyier have been brought out from their protective storage for display. The Kentucky Historical Society has one of the largest collection of Sawyier originals in the world.
The Old Capitol is more than just an exceptional Frankfort masterpiece. Experience the soul of a National Historic Landmark. What was once old is new again, the forgotten is now unforgettable, what was simply Greek Revival is now truly — a great revival.
Please see the KHS website for information regarding tours, times and prices.