Written by Jason Tish
Hundreds of thousands of passionate, angry, and often raucous protesters at the Wisconsin State Capitol in the past two weeks have been astonishingly respectful of the National Historic Landmark building itself. Since February 14 the Wisconsin State Capitol has been at the center of the national debate about the right of state employees to negotiate collectively and the imperative for states to balance their budgets in tough economic times.
My office is one block from Capitol Square in Madison so I’ve spent several lunch hours among the crowds inside and outside the building. For over two weeks tens of thousands of demonstrators concerned about changes to collective bargaining arrangements proposed by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker have marched around, passed through and occupied the building 24 hours a day, setting up an indoor community complete with first aid and information stations, child care, sleeping quarters, a family respite wing, a speaker’s stage at the center of the rotunda, live entertainment, and a steady stream of food called in by people around the world. The number of demonstrators camped out overnight in the capitol building has ranged from over a thousand to a less than a hundred in recent days after police were ordered to restrict access. During daytime hours crowds inside the building have reached shoulder-to-shoulder capacity. On weekend days crowds on Capitol Square have reached 50-70,000. Images and video of raucous crowds drumming and chanting in the rotunda have flooded websites. On day ten of the ongoing protests Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz estimated that around 500,000 people had spent time in the building.
This incredibly heavy use raises concerns about the impact of such crowds on the fabric of the building itself. Last Friday night I walked through the building to see the impact thousands of protesters were having. The Wisconsin State Capitol is a typical early-twentieth-century Beaux-Arts state capitol - monumental and cavernous with a soaring rotunda and marble and granite finishes everywhere. It was designed by the New York firm of George B. Post & Sons and completed in 1917. The building is noted for its decorative program, featuring sculptural groupings in each of the four wings, and dome paintings and mosaics by nationally prominent artists. Chambers and caucus rooms feature rich furnishings and hardwood finishes and are decorated with art and antiques from two former capitol buildings on the site. In the late 1990s and early 2000s a full restoration/rehabilitation was completed.
Remarkably, the protesters have adopted an ownership ethic in the building, treating it with the utmost care and respect. Thousands of signs with protest slogans, information, and wayfinding information are taped to the granite and painted walls, without exception, with low adhesion blue painter’s tape. Memorial installations are left completely free of signage. Trash and recycle bins are prevalent, and there is no discarded trash anywhere. Demonstrators organize daily cleaning crews. They are also evangelistic about their respect for the building. Handwritten signs on glass display cases, rest room doors and granite pillars demand care, cleanliness, and respect for the building they call “Our house.” High humidity and salt and dirt residue may add to the cumulative impact on floors and painted surfaces, but any damage to the building is unintended.
Political differences catalyzing the demonstrations are far from resolved and large crowds continue to gather at the building, but demonstrators have shown reverence for the state house as the gathering place of democracy is Wisconsin, and show no signs of resorting to symbolic attacks on it.
Jason Tish is the executive director of the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation and a local field representative for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.