Work in an old building long enough and someone’s going to tell a ghost story about it.
In Minnesota’s pre-restoration state Capitol Building, for example, there is a story about a custodian who swears that he saw an apparition pass through the walls in the warren of basement corridors and offices.
There’s also one-time Civil War commander William Colvill, whose spirit has been seen next to his bronze likeness overlooking the rotunda. After all, he was the first person to lie in state in the building after it opened in 1905.
The spirit of architect Cass Gilbert is also said to roam the halls of the masterpiece he designed, from the ornamentation at the top of the dome to the carved benches in the basement. But he doesn’t haunt so much as make sure his work isn’t tampered with, the story goes, something that was true in life so why not in death?
And there are the tales of more routine mists and apparitions, caught by glimpse before melting into the air. Such stories might have lessened with the top-to-bottom Capitol restoration, completed in 2017, which took away much of grime and shadows, the narrow basement hallway, the obstructed corners. But then again, maybe the repair and replacement of the elevators, doors and heating systems makes those late-night noises harder to chalk up to the decrepit bleatings of an architectural relic.
So is the place haunted?
No greater expert on the topic exists than Brian Pease, the historic site manager of the Capitol for the Minnesota Historical Society. Pease not only knows every bit of history of the building — of both the old one and the renovated version — but he wrote and produced the special Halloween-time evening tour: “Shadows and Spirits of the Capitol.”
The tour takes visitors back to 1915 at the end of the Capitol’s first decade, and it was created in response to newspaper stories about ghost sightings in the building, Pease said. The only illumination is from the lamps, lanterns, sconces and torchieres that were available when the building was new. Actors portray characters from the time — a night watchman, a suffragist, the artist who painted the murals in the Supreme Court chambers, a Civil War veteran, and a construction foreman who worked on the free-standing dome.
So, are the characters in the tour ghosts?
No. At least they’re not portrayed as ghosts but as actual living historical figures, Pease said.
So where are the ghosts? Or, you know, the “Shadows and Spirits”?
“The Minnesota Historical Society has a policy that we don’t address if there is or isn’t,” Pease said. “We just thought it would be a fun way to get people to explore the building in a different setting.”
So do they at least acknowledge that there are ghost stories out there?
“No, we really don’t say anything about any ghosts in the building,” Pease said.
Wait, what about, you know, the title of the tour?
“We try to make light of that with our Shadows and Spirits tour,” he said. “Not to say that there are spirits here but if there were, these might be some you’d see. I think some people might be disappointed that it’s not scary or spooky” like a haunted house, perhaps.
“But this building is far too dignified to do that to it,” Pease said.
Pease and the other society staffers dedicated to telling the story of the Capitol have offices here. Has he heard or seen anything?
“In an old building you hear creaks and doors slamming. Even though you think no one’s here, there is someone actually here working or it could be someone else,” Pease said. “That’s where some of the stories come from. But when you look at what they did to the building during the restoration, everything was pretty much gutted and cleaned.”
OK, then, no ghosts, even though the tours are before Halloween and some guests show up in costume (which isn’t always a good idea given the amount of stair climbing involved).
But Pease said most people still enjoy the tour, which begins as attendees are waiting in the rotunda for their guide. Instead of a modern-day docent, a night watchman in period dress appears and explains that he has been asked to fill in.
In the governor’s reception room, paintings depicting scenes of Minnesota regiments in the Civil War are described by an aging Lt. Col. Judson Wade Bishop, who as a much-younger man led charge at Missionary Ridge in Tennessee in 1863.
When the painting was commissioned, the war was still a relatively recent event for the artists and for those depicted — just 40 years separated the end of the war and the opening of the Capitol. In fact, some of the soldiers shared photos of themselves with the artist, and are thus depicted in the painting.
The tour also takes visitors into the Senate Chambers, where Clara Ueland describes the historic vote to grant women the vote (it failed by a single vote). And in the Supreme Court chamber, artist John La Farge describes his battles with the capitol commission over the progress of his four murals painted on the walls of the chamber.
The tours are conducted for two weeks before Halloween and sell out quickly.
“It’s not a scary tour. It’s basically an educational tour. But it’s a completely different experience at night because everything has a glow to it. It’s really a beautiful building to be in, even at night.”
But no ghosts?
“I don’t know if there are any ghosts here,” he said. “I think it’s easy for people to say, old building, there must be some paranormal thing going on. Or they want to believe that.”