Victorian-era Michigan Capitol ceilings draw new attention

Jada Penn
Capital News Service

Lansing — Michigan’s state Capitol is opening a new underground visitor and event center inside Heritage Hall this summer that will feature the historic building’s ceilings designs created by Christian Weidemann, according to Capitol historian and curator Valerie Marvin.

Weidemann was a Detroit artist who was the foreman for the Capitol’s decoration and painting project from 1885 to 1890, according to Marvin.

The exhibit has been under construction for two to three years and will include new orientation rooms, a conservation lab, historical exhibits and space for historical programming. It’s expected to be home to large meetings, events and functions. 

The sunburst ceiling on the 1st floor of the Capitol in Lansing.

Weidemann worked at the William Wright Co. and likely did the original artwork in the 19th century when it was first built, according to Marvin. The art was inspired by the Victorian artwork of the 19th and early 20th centuries, which was popular during that time.

“The Victorians believed that beautiful surroundings would inspire people to do their best work,” Marvin said. “The Victorians would often put a lot of decoration on the ceilings, and they wanted to make your eyes go up.” 

A 19th century sunburst ceiling sketch by Christian Weidemann.

“In this period, tall buildings were hard to build, so the idea is, if our eyes are constantly going up, it makes us think the spaces are bigger than what they really are,” Marvin said.

State Capitol Commission member Bill Kandler said it’s “pretty unique and special.”

“We’ve been told that Michigan’s state Capitol has one of the finest examples of Victorian interior of any public building in the country,” Kandler said.

David Kidd, a photojournalist at Governing magazine who visited 30 state capitols over the last dozen years, saw Weidmann’s work on the Capitol’s ceilings and said it stands out to him because of the bold and bright colors that cover every surface.

Looking up into the dome in Michigan's Capitol building.

Since cheaper materials were used in construction, artists painted over cast-iron columns and made them look like marble, according to Kidd. He said he’s not used to seeing every interior surface covered in paint.

“Some of the decorations are done with metallic paints, something that I have not seen at other state capitols,” Kidd said. “I am amazed at the amount of intricate detail in the hand-painted decorations that cover the ceiling.”