Like Little Bear’s Porridge

Linda Burton posting from Salem, Oregon – “Jim Stembridge of Salem, Oregon loves state capitols. You will love them too, once you read his book about the 50 of them.  Like Little Bear’s porridge, this book is Just Right. It isn’t a heavy-duty, hardbound coffee-table book that’s hard to fit on your lap. It isn’t filled with endless facts and figures that you simply don’t want to wade through. Nor is it one of those slapped together 101’s, where inspiration unfortunately gives way to glib.You will enjoy reading it, and you will be satisfied with the logistics and consistency of it. I’ve always wanted a collection of capitol photographs. This book offers that – left hand page, alphabetical order by state – a full-page color exterior shot. You can flip through the book and easily find the one you want, or just enjoy them one after the other. These are not glam shots, touched up to a too-pretty perfection. Stembridge puts you there; you get a sense of place, as though you were standing on the sidewalk beside him.”

I wrote this review of Jim’s new book last July, and today, I did “stand on the sidewalk beside him,” right here in his home town of Salem. Jim is a Board Member of Capital Cities USA, so over lunch we talked about how the Journey is progressing, and we talked about his book. I wanted to hear more about how he came to write it.

Jim spent several years researching and photographing the capitols, traveling with his black lab Ruthless (he calls her Ruth) and often sleeping in his car; checking into a motel when he really needed a shave. Sometimes there was snow on the ground, or rain; sometimes he had to hang around until the light was good, or the crowds were scarce, to get a good shot. “In Montgomery, I waited till almost dark, when they began to turn on the building’s lights,” he explained, in answer to my question about the glow on the capitol dome.

Jim didn’t start out planning to write a book; he was merely interested in the architecture of state capitols. He worked in the Salem capitol for years, and noticed the effect that being inside a powerful, significant structure had on people. Quoting Charles Goodsell, “the state capitol fostered a distinct style of politics that mixed colorful leadership…bicameral opposition, deliberate debate, uninhibited reporting…and populist activism.” As Jim traveled the country visiting the home of each state’s government, he observed the symbols of democracy evident in each place. Back in Salem, with stacks of photographs and a tangle of ideas in his head, the book came into being.

An educator at heart, Jim has been a public school teacher, a community college instructor, and a university professor, holding MA and PhD degrees in Geography from the University of Oregon. He is interested in the improvement of civic education in our schools and communities, and hopes his book will contribute to that.

Civic education is our common bond, and as I encourage all to support the mission of Capital Cities USA (read About, I urge all to buy Jim’s book. I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true – it is “just right” in its approach. Schoolteachers, librarians, parents, bookstores, gift shops, every citizen old and new – order it direct, order it through, or walk into the gift shop at your own state capitol and buy it off the shelf! And if they don’t have it, you can tell them where to get it.

Here’s the rest of my July 2011 review of Fifty State Capitols, The Architecture of Representative Government.

Linda Burton at Salem Capitol

You cannot look at Stembridge’s photos without instantly getting a feel for what that capitol represents, the history behind it, the thinking of the citizens of that particular state, at that particular time. Some of the buildings are magnificent showpieces, elegantly columned, domed, and gilded in gold. Some are slender, modern, high-rises of efficiency. Some are skewed far from the norm, designed to represent their connection to the culture, or the land.

The right hand pages of Stembridge’s book tell the rest of the story. Who designed these buildings? When were they built? What are they made of? How much did they cost? Is artwork displayed inside? Murals? Statuary? Photos set within the text give you a glimpse of the interiors; gaze upward into breathtaking curved rotundas, marvel at sweeping staircases, study the intricate detail of a hand-carved wooden door. There is color, warmth, and feeling throughout.

Stembridge tells about the heroics and the scandal too; the bullet holes in the wall, the mural overhead that’s hidden now, the one spindle on the staircase that was installed upside down. Do you know about Petunia #1? Where can you see a fossil swirl embedded in the floor? What is the Quadriga? Where can you find the Goddess of Liberty? What is scagliola, and where was it used?

Stembridge traveled all over the United States to find these things. Accompanied by Ruthless, his big black dog, he took thousands of photos, interviewed hundreds of people, jotted endless notes; and then meticulously fashioned everything together with prose that flows, to share with readers everywhere.

I recommend this book for every library, school, and household. It is a good read, but not only that, it is an important read. Stembridge shows us, as the title says, the architecture of representative government. State capitols are symbols of democracy. Being knowledgeable about them not only improves your wizardry with parlor games, it raises your confidence in the processes of government, despite the ups and downs of daily headlines. As Stembridge stacks present against past in Fifty State Capitols, we see the foundation is secure.

Linda L Burton, July 2011