Early last week, I ticked another two buildings off one of my many bucket lists, in this case American state capitols. On Monday morning, I visited the Massachusetts legislature (in Boston) for the first time and, the following day, Maine's state house in Augusta. At this time of year – the 'season' begins in a few weeks – many are closed for repairs. Visitors to Boston's gold-domed building could only see the Lower House, although Augusta was entirely open for business.
I've long made a point of visiting parliament buildings in whatever country I find myself in, particularly if that includes its capital city, although my interest in US state capitols is more recent, post-dating my main two American bucket lists, visiting every state and every (official) presidential library. In each case I have only one to go (North Dakota and George Bush senior, if anyone's interested), but my hit rate for the 50 state capitols is less impressive – I reckon I've only been to (or seen) 22, including the two above.
Part of the difficulty is that many of them aren't in obvious places. Those in Massachusetts and Rhode Island (which I re-visited recently) are exceptions in that they're located in their state's largest cities. This isn't always the case. Augusta, for example, offers little beyond a legislative building and a state museum, while some are pretty sketchy. Last autumn I caught a train from New York City to Trenton, New Jersey, in order to check out another state capitol, but after doing so caught the first train back to Manhattan. Trenton is not an attractive city.
Architecturally, these mini DCs are usually pretty formulaic: neoclassical façade, lots of interior marble, and topped with an imposing dome (that in Austin, Texas, was deliberately contrived to be slightly taller than that on Washington's Capitol Hill). There are exceptions. The Hawaiian state capitol in Honolulu is not only a brutalist concrete construction, but has an open-air atrium and chambers shaped like volcanoes, while New Mexico's in Santa Fe was designed to resemble the 'Zia' sun symbol when viewed from above. One I'm particularly keen to see is Nebraska's modernist legislative building (its third) in Lincoln. After that, I'll only have 27 to go.
I also spent the middle of last week in two Canadian provinces, and found my interest in state capitols spreading to another North American country. Usefully, my first stop was Charlottetown in Prince Edward Island (PEI), although, less usefully, its 'province house' was not only closed for renovations, but looked like it'd been completely gutted. This was a shame, for not only was it home to PEI's provincial assembly, but it also hosted the Charlottetown conference in 1864, at which representatives from the colonies of British North America met to discuss confederation (which followed three years later).
Next to the province house was the brutalist Confederation Centre, which reminded me of the Barbican Centre in London. Beyond Charlottetown, what I saw of Prince Edward Island was ruggedly beautiful, especially in the winter sunlight. Its northern coast boasts a series of pristine beaches and Victorian lighthouses, while near Cavendish is the writer L M Montgomery's childhood home, the inspiration for 'Anne of Green Gables.' I'd never read it, but when I mentioned my trip to PEI a few weeks ago, several female friends enthused at length about the book and its eponymous heroine.
On the way back to the United States, my partner and I also stopped by the New Brunswick legislature in Fredericton, which proved a curious mash-up of US state capitol (complete with modest dome) and the 'Westminster model,' its Lower House boasting an ornate parliamentary mace modelled on that in the UK House of Commons. Massive portraits of British monarchs (including the present Queen) lined its walls, a reminder that I shared a head of state with the 700,000 citizens of New Brunswick, not to mention hundreds of thousands of others in Canada, Bermuda, the Caribbean and even Honduras in Central America. For some reason, this always takes me by surprise.
Getting to and from Canada from the United States proved a mixed experience. Initially, we 'dipped' into New Brunswick from Maine to see the Roosevelt Campobello International Park on Campobello Island, which lies north of West Quoddy, the easternmost point in the (contiguous) US. It was here in the early 1920s that Franklin D Roosevelt was struck down by polio. And although he rarely visited the 'island' as president, in the 1960s it became an international visitor attraction, jointly administered by the US and Canada.
We were there for all of 20 minutes (this, too, was closed), but re-entering the US proved challenging. Not unreasonably, my passport – which includes stamps from Pakistan, Iraq and Sudan – caught the border guard's eye and we were referred to his colleagues for 20 minutes of further questioning. All, ultimately, was well, although two nectarines a friend had given us in Portland, Maine, were confiscated. Despite originating in the US, their brief presence on Canadian soil had apparently rendered them dangerous (although confusingly, a bag of apples remained untouched).
By contrast, the Canadian border officers were charming and apparently sincerely delighted that anyone wanted to visit its north-eastern provinces at such an odd time of year (one of the main crossing points between Maine and New Brunswick is called 'Calais'). Similarly, when we re-entered the US via another part of Maine a few days later, we were practically waved through once I'd clarified my 'status'. After that, it was on to rural Vermont for a few days of doing absolutely nothing. Frustratingly, there were another two state capitols within driving distance – Concord in New Hampshire and Montpelier in northern Vermont – but neither were receiving visitors at the weekend. Still, they're not going anywhere, and I'm already hatching plans for conquering the remaining 28.