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Why the Quadriga sculpture at the state Capitol has pineapple wheels, and other fun facts

Architect Cass Gilbert commissioned Daniel Chester French, best known for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., to create “The Progress of the State.”

Photo by Tom Olmscheid/Working Press Photos

A gilded quadriga sculpture group titled “The Progress of the State” stands like a sentinel over the front façade of the Minnesota State Capitol. Architect Cass Gilbert commissioned Daniel Chester French, best known for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., to do the work. He sculpted the chariot and human figures, and animal sculptor Edward Clark Potter created the horses. The Quadriga (Latin for “four-horse chariot”) has greeted Capitol visitors since its installation in December 1906.

Gilbert drew inspiration for the third Minnesota State Capitol from the “White City” of the World’s Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893. His earliest drawings for the building included a quadriga sculpture group over the front entrance. Gilbert had seen a quadriga created by French for the Exposition and commissioned him to produce a similar sculpture for the Capitol at a cost of $35,000.

To stay within his limited budget, French created a steel frame covered with hammered copper sheets instead of casting the pieces in bronze. The Quadriga measures twenty-one feet long, thirteen feet deep and stands twenty-five feet tall at its highest point. The estimated total weight of the group is four tons—two for the figures and two for the steel-framed base. Five pounds of tissue-thin, twenty-three-and-one-half-karat gold leaf applied over the copper gives the artwork its golden patina.

Titled “The Progress of the State,” the sculpture group features a chariot pulled by four horses that represent the forces of nature: earth, wind, fire, and water. Two female figures holding the bridles control the forces of nature. They are “Agriculture” and “Industry” and together symbolize “Civilization.” The charioteer is “Prosperity.” He holds a staff bearing the name “Minnesota” in his left hand and cradles a horn of plenty filled with Minnesota produce in his right arm. The pineapples emerging from the hub of the chariot wheels are a symbol of hospitality. The forward motion of the group suggests the future progress of the state of Minnesota.

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The “golden horses” are a highlight for the thousands of students and other visitors who tour the capitol each year. When the artwork was new, however, Channing Seabury, vice president of the Board of Capitol Commissioners, thought the completed sculpture too bright and not in keeping with the design of the building. He advised Gilbert to tone it down. Gilbert originally specified a “dull gold” finish for the Quadriga. French had intended the sculpture to have a wax coating containing a dark stain applied over the gold leaf to enhance the three-dimensionality of the piece and subdue the golden finish. Whether for economic reasons or simply an oversight, workers never applied the wax shading.

Minnesota’s challenging climate has taken its toll on the Quadriga over the years. The sculpture group underwent regilding in 1949 and again in 1979. In 1994, a thorough assessment of the figures by conservators revealed a substantial amount of structural damage. The state legislature provided $636,000 for a full restoration. On August 23, a crane removed each piece of the Quadriga from the capitol roof and loaded them onto a flatbed truck bound for Fine Objects Conservation, Inc., in Westport, Connecticut. Conservator Linda Merck-Gould oversaw the work.

The year-long restoration involved replacing the corroded steel supports inside each statue, repairing the copper sheeting, installing a new support system below the sculpture group, and applying a fresh layer of gold leaf. Following French’s original instructions, the restorers applied the wax coating containing a dark stain over the gold leaf to the recessed areas of each figure. The restored Quadriga returned to its perch on June 21 the following year.

During the total renovation of the Minnesota State Capitol, conservators brought the figure of the charioteer down again on September 23, 2014. Jensen Conservation Services Company in Omaha, Nebraska, restored the figure and workers reinstalled it on August 29, 2015. Each year, conservators examine the condition of the Quadriga and make minor repairs or replace sections of the gold leaf as needed.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.