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State's Dome Is All-Write

Missouri Capitol visitors take to doodling, scribbling and composing at the highest point to which the public has access.

September 21, 2003|Paul Sloca | Associated Press Writer

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Many have etched their names into Missouri history over the centuries, from the Native Americans who first settled the land to more recent public figures such as President Harry Truman.

Since 1917, however, visitors to the State Capitol have been leaving their mark on the Capitol Dome.

"Franta Bejvancicky, Czech Republic, Europe," reads a signature in red ink. A meticulously written name in a substance that appears to be chewing gum proclaims: "Robert Wunderlich, 91." One anonymous writer left behind a version of the Bible verse John 3:16.

To reach such literary heights, visitors must climb 211 metal stairs enclosed by wire that rattle and sometimes sway. The metal skeleton of the Capitol's original framework is visible during the journey, which culminates with a spiral staircase leading to a small area just below the Capitol peak.

It is here -- the highest point to which the public has access -- that most take to doodling, scribbling and composing.

There is little indication that the practice will stop anytime soon.

A group of children, accompanied by their parents, recently were allowed access to the dome under the supervision of a member of the lieutenant governor's office. When they reached the top, they emerged from the dome onto a narrow outside walkway that provides a breathtaking view of the capital city, the Missouri River and the surrounding countryside.

The children immediately took to the outside dome walls with a marker.

Austin Haslag, 10, of Jefferson City, simply wrote, "Austin, August 5, 2003." Asked by an observer why he did so, Austin responded, with a prompt by his mother: "So everyone knows I was here."

Austin's mother, who works for the agency that oversees the upkeep of the Capitol building, was more proud of her son than concerned about the graffiti.

"I think it's pretty awesome," said Brenda Haslag, who works for the state Office of Administration. "He'll remember this forever."

Not everyone is pleased with the writings. Stephanie Ahrens, 17, of Jefferson City, was disgusted.

"I think it's a shame," she said. "This building was not built so people could write on it. It bewilders me. I'm a little angry. This is not a chalkboard and it's not a trash can."

Although not part of regular Capitol tours, visitors merely need to make a request of their lawmaker to visit the dome, which was closed to the general public in the 1940s.

Although no official tally is kept, House and Senate officials estimate that hundreds of people are allowed access to the dome each year. A special key is required to send an elevator to the upper Capitol. The same key also opens a door lock to the stairs leading to the dome.

During the 1993 flood, the dome provided a perfect vantage point to view the destruction brought on by the swollen Missouri River. During presidential visits, sharpshooters have been spotted perched on the outer dome walkway.

Among the names in the dome are those of lawmakers such as former state Rep. Martin "Bubs" Hohulin, now an assistant to state Sen. Carl Vogel, and Ryan Lefebvre, a broadcast announcer for the Kansas City Royals.

"Graffiti is when you are defacing something and trying to ruin it, and that's not what this is," Hohulin said. Besides, he argues, "not only are visitors faced with a great view but they always spend 10 to 15 minutes looking at all the names."

Graffiti has been around in some form or another for thousands of years. In the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, archeologists have discovered graffiti that includes statements such as: "Lucius painted this" and "Someone at whose table I do not dine, Lucius Istacidius, is a barbarian to me." Other graffiti in the ancient city includes sexually graphic slogans.

Occasionally, state maintenance workers are asked to make the lengthy trip up to the Capitol dome to clean off some of the graffiti, especially if it gets a little too descriptive. And although there is evidence of the cover-up, new graffiti pops up almost daily. State officials say that because the location is so remote, they are hard-pressed to monitor the activity of all visitors.

"Periodically, we'll go up and wash it and scrub it," said Dave Mosby, who heads the division that oversees the Capitol complex. "There's a long history of folks going up there and people putting their names on it. Sometimes the graffiti is obnoxious and disrespectful and that's the stuff we take care of."

Meanwhile, the dome autograph sessions continue.

Milton McHenry, the member of the lieutenant governor's staff who led the group of children and parents to the top of the dome, said marking the dome is a reward for completing the steep climb.

"If you can climb all the way to the top of this bad boy," he said, "you better be able to leave something behind."

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