Secret Columbus: Insider's Tour of the Ohio Statehouse

Anthony Dominic
Prior to building renovations, the hall's Great Seal of Ohio skylight wasn't visible because it was hidden by a lower drop ceiling.

You think you know the Ohio Statehouse from a childhood visit or two? This 175-year-old building is full of secrets just waiting to be discovered-many of which aren't shared on daily Statehouse tours.

Under The Table

Since being rediscovered and restored in the 1990s, the 157-year-old rosewood desk in the Governor's Office bears the signatures of those who have sat behind it-Voinovich, Hollister and Taft in the top-right drawer, Strickland in the left. "Signing is the last act of an administration," says Luke Stedke, Statehouse communications manager.

Hamilton Was Here

The Statehouse rotunda was renovated in summer 1897, and one of the carvers didn't want anyone to forget. "J.S. Hamilton July 6 1897" is etched into one of the cupola's lower bands, but you'd need a pretty long ladder to see it for yourself.

Do Look Down

Recall the white and auburn tiles in the crypt-the open room west of the gift shop and directly below the rotunda? They were transplanted from the Lunatic Asylum of Ohio, which once stood at the current site of the Ohio Department of Transportation headquarters in the Hilltop. Odd? Not as odd as the original crypt floor, which was made from packed dirt and dried ox blood.

From Another Time

Pre-World War II swastikas can be seen in the tiled mosaics throughout the Senate Building hallways. "It's a common motif, one that shows up all over the planet," Stedke says. "In this case, and traditionally, it's a sign of good luck and fertility."

Free Labor

In 1839, prisoners from the nearby Ohio Penitentiary began to lay the groundwork for the Statehouse. They built and set large limestone bricks (still visible in the crypt) sourced from the banks of the Scioto River. The prisoners were bound with balls and chains, and a large fence was built around the property to prevent escapes.

Let There Be Light

Stand in the Senate Building's Grand Stair Hall and look up. Prior to building renovations in the early 1990s, the hall's Great Seal of Ohio skylight wasn't visible-or even known to have existed-because it was hidden by a lower drop ceiling.

The Architect's Dream

New York painter Thomas Cole won only third place in the Statehouse's open design competition in 1838, sketching his proposal on the backside of the contest envelope. However, New York architect A.J. Davis and first-place winner Henry Walter based the final design on a composite of the first-, second- and third-place entries, Stedke says, and ultimately Cole's vision (also evident in his "The Course of Empire: Consummation" and "The Architect's Dream" paintings) took precedence.

Top Of The World

Inside the cupola, there's a little-known observation deck that was once the highest vantage point in the city. "We treat it as an artifact," Stedke says. "It's the last original, untouched area." Visitors can request a special tour of the space and even sign the wall. The oldest signature: "J. Cook 1870."