The shining gold dome of the Colorado Capitol in the mile-high city of Denver stands as a striking tribute to Colorado’s mining heritage and as a symbol of Denver’s victory as the heart of Colorado.
Hundreds of visitors explore the Colorado Capitol each day to learn about the building’s history on free guided tours, or sit in the public balcony during legislative sessions and take in the splendor of the architecture and numerous artworks found throughout the building.
The location of the Capitol was already in hot debate by the time Colorado received statehood in 1876. Golden, where the mining industry and western heritage was strong, had been the designated capital city for several years while Colorado was a
territory, but Denver had also been proposed as the state was preparing to be admitted into the union. Henry Brown (soon-to-be owner of the Brown Palace Hotel) ultimately helped decide the issue in January 1868, donating 10 acres of his land in the area that is now known as Capitol Hill.
The dry, sandy hill was first called “Brown’s Bluff,” but the high-ground location appealed to Colorado’s decision makers, according to historian Phil Goodstein, Denver tour guide and author: “Since the erection of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., if not since the days of Capitoline Hill in ancient Rome, it has been a custom to build capitols on prominent, high places… Brown’s Bluff was Denver’s ideal spot for a similar Capitol Hill.”
Almost 20 years after Brown donated the land – bordered by Lincoln Street, East 14th Avenue, Grant Street and East Colfax Avenue – construction on the Capitol building finally began. The cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1890.
The building materials were carefully selected: gray granite from the Aberdeen quarry, seven miles south of Gunnison, Colorado. The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad extended its narrow-gauge tracks to the site to help move the special load, which the Colorado legislature spent $471,000 to procure.
The Colorado legislature also approved an additional $164,000 expense to bring in Beulah Red marble, also called Colorado Rose Onyx, to cover the walls and provide ornate bases for the interior pillars. The unique gray- and rose-colored stone, quarried near Beulah in Pueblo County, is a one-of-a-kind material.
“The rose-colored marble on the interior… was so rare that the entire supply was used to finish the decorative touches,” Michelle Pearson writes in her guidebook, “Historic Denver Landmarks for Children and Families.”
The famous gold dome – which can be seen especially well coming from the mountains, where many of the town’s first citizens worked – was constructed initially with copper.
“The main building was completed in 1904, but it was not capped with the dome until 1908 after it had been gilded with a layer of Colorado gold as a tribute to Colorado’s mining heritage,” Pearson says.
Denver’s Capitol remains Colorado’s seat of government, although the city and its skyscrapers now overlook Capitol Hill, rather than vice versa.
Legislators mix with visitors, who roam the Colorado Capitol’s various levels through tours and events to explore not only the building itself but to hear and see its history.
“We have hundreds and hundreds of visitors every day,” says Capitol historical tour guide and volunteer Rena Grossman.
The tour weaves through the building to cover its history, architecture and how the state’s Supreme Court works, including a visit to the public gallery above the legislative chambers. The Capitol’s many artworks, which include the paintings of all the U.S. presidents and the portraits circling the inside of the dome that make up the “Colorado Hall of Fame,” are also talking points for history and lore.
Visitors gather unique facts about the building, like the story of the three mile-high markers on the outside west steps. The 1909 original marker put the 5,280-foot measurement on the 15th step. The plaque was often stolen as a souvenir, and so finally the words “one mile above sea level” were carved into the stone. In 1969, a resurvey of the measurement determined the 18th step was the actual mile high location, and a metal marker was installed.
“In 2003 we had more [surveyors] come in and say both markers were in the wrong place,” says Grossman. Using the new national vertical datum, a third marker was installed, making the 13th step the official “Mile High” location. “It’s kind of a big deal here in Denver,” Grossman says.
The separate dome tour leads visitors from Mr. Brown’s Attic – an informative exhibit on Colorado’s history and the Capitol building found on the third floor – up a long spiral staircase. Guides like Theresa Holst lead groups around the interior balcony overlooking the floors beneath.
“Visitors are not allowed on the outside balcony due to the exterior deterioration,” she says. The dome wasn’t built with the Capitol’s solid granite material but with cast iron painted to look like the rest of the building.
Holst says a team is looking into what damage exists to estimate repairs. “They would like to recycle as much of the material as possible because it’s already going to be an estimated $12 million to $30 million [in repairs], and the closer they look, the more damage they discover.”
The original copper underneath the gold dome is also crumbling, and will one day need to be replaced.
“They’re trying to raise funds privately because there aren’t public funds to do the renovation,” Holst says of the dome’s future face lift. So far, the only true repairs to the dome have been replacing the thin layer of gold.
“The outside of the dome is 24-karat gold. Miners donated the gold leaf for the dome in 1908,” says Grossman. Since then, it has been replaced three times, costing $21,000 the last time in 1991.
Although the dome may be closed a couple days at a time, Holst says the goal is to keep it open during construction so that each visitor’s experience can be complete when visiting Colorado’s Capitol.
If You Go
Colorado Capitol Building
200 E. Colfax Ave.
Denver, Colorado 80203
Tour Desk: 303-866-2604
Historic tours run on the hour from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, and last about 45 minutes; dome tours run every half hour. Tours are free of charge. The Capitol building is open to the public from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.