Great Western Staircase

The Great Western Staircase is one of the highlights of the New York State Capitol Building in Albany. Also known as the “Million Dollar Staircase”, it took fourteen years to complete at a cost of almost 1.5 million dollars. In 1894, The New York Times called the staircase “the greatest architectural work on this continent.” While that may be a bit of an overstatement, the staircase really is amazing.

Henry Hobson Richardson was the original designer, but architect Isaac G. Perry directed its construction and added a significant amount of ornamental carvings. Over 500 stone carvers worked on the project under foreman Louis Hinton.

The staircase is enormous: 119 feet in height and containing 444 steps. The predominant materials are Corsehill freestone, medina sandstone, limestone, and granite. It is illuminated throughout by light fixtures designed by Louis Hinton, and an enormous skylight on the top floor bathes the uppermost levels in natural light.

Portrait busts of great historical figures in the history of New York and the nation adorn the stonework in great profusion along with the faces of the stone carvers’ families and friends, and random people from the street. Also present are scenes from American history, various animals, and other symbols. Famous figures portrayed include:

  • Susan B. Anthony
  • Christopher Columbus
  • Benjamin Franklin
  • Alexander Hamilton
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Ulysses S. Grant
  • George Washington
  • Walt Whitman

The sculpture adds a level of detail that makes exploring the staircase a little more quaint and intriguing. The staircase would probably stand as a marvel without it, but it is a nice touch. The stonework itself is massive, but the configuration of the stairways and columns is such that at times space appears almost ethereal. The numerous arches, elliptical arches, columns, and groins create a dizzying space that easily impresses.

A $2.8 million dollar restoration of the entire staircase was completed in September of 2006. A hundred years of dirt, soot, and grime have been removed from the stone and light fixtures, revealing the original beauty of the materials.

Washington Ave and State Street
Albany, NY 12247

Captured by: MCWB Architects


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