Albany Times Union
Adding RBG, Capitol steps up
ALBANY — Even then, the gender imbalance was glaring.
The so-called Million Dollar Staircase, spanning 444 steps and four floors of the state Capitol, memorialized the faces of dozens of distinguished figures in delicate carvings, but not one was a woman.
Scrutiny prompted a state official to hastily authorize the addition of several women to the staircase’s lower level. The year was 1898.
Now, after 125 years, the state will make the first addition to the roster of honorees, and it will again be a woman: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the trailblazing Supreme Court justice, feminist icon and Brooklyn native.
The new carving will be fashioned from the same Corsehill sandstone used for the original stairs. Flown in from a quarry in Scotland, it is expected to cost about $150,000 and be ready for unveiling sometime this spring, although it seemed unlikely to be finished by the end of March, Women’s History Month.
Pressed for a more precise date of completion, Gov. Kathy Hochul quipped: “When the budget is done.”
The carving project began under Hochul’s predecessor, Andrew M. Cuomo, but she is fully embracing the opportunity to remake the Capitol. She suggested that the addition of Ginsburg, who is also the first person of Jewish descent to be memorialized on the staircase, could be the first of many.
“New York is not static,” Hochul said, noting the availability of other blank spaces. “We’re not frozen in time 125 years ago.” Later she added: “It could be here for centuries, and I want to make sure that we’ve left our mark.”
Million Dollar Staircase
The Great Western Staircase was carved in place from massive blocks of sandstone from
1884 to 1898. It was modeled after a similar work at the Paris Opera house, although for observers today it might conjure the work of the artist M.C. Escher.
It was supposed to cost $1 million, leading to its nickname. Like many things in Albany, it ended up running over budget — by $500,000.
The staircase boasts intricate carvings of flora and fauna as well as symbols, including the Eye of Providence. It also features 78 carvings of 77 distinguished figures of the day (John Jay, a slaveholder and New York governor who was the first chief justice of the United States, appears twice).
“A lot of them make a lot of sense, and are relevant,” explained Bevin Collins, the Capitol architect who is overseeing the project, noting Abraham Lincoln and poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. “But then there also seem to have been some that we can’t really explain — and we assumed it was political patronage of the time, like a paper mill owner.”
The few faces of women that were originally depicted are clearly more for ornamental than honorific purposes; they include babies, goddesses and the architect’s granddaughter.
The six female additions include suffragist Susan B. Anthony and novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, as well as Civil War nurses and a temperance crusader. Keen observers might notice that the portrait of the Revolutionary War legend Molly Pitcher looks slightly generic — probably because she was not a real person at all, but a convenient amalgam of the many women who fought for the Colonies.
Women are not the only people underrepresented in the sandstone: There are no known Native Americans or people of Asian descent depicted. The name of the lone Black American who is included — abolitionist Frederick Douglass — was misspelled for more than a century before being corrected in 2019.
This is a dress rehearsal of sorts. The artist, Meredith Bergmann, first sculpted the figure in clay. She covered that in a rubber mold, into which she poured a plaster cast. While two tireless helpers suspended it from above, Bergmann assessed its size, its shape and the way it caught the light.
With the final model approved, construction can begin. A thin slab will be cut in the stone blocks that make up the staircase, and the portrait will be fitted in and secured with stainless steel dowels.
In the carving, which Ginsburg ’s family approved, the justice wears her signature collar and glasses and radiates stately intelligence.
Seeing the model held in place, the governor was pleased.
“That is awesome,” she said. “Look at that. What a place of prominence, right?”
It is not the first time Bergmann has conjured Ginsburg from a block of clay; in 2010, the judge agreed to be observed for several days for a bust after Bergmann wrote her a heartfelt letter.
Bergmann recalled Ginsburg — who helped establish women’s constitutional right to equal protection, not to mention voting rights, affirmative action, and same-sex marriage — as a kind woman engrossed in her work.
“She just worked,” Bergmann said. “Work, work, work, work, work, work, work. At one point she said, ‘Where’s my bagel?’ And then she just went on working.”
Reviving a centuries-old craft is not without challenges: There are relatively few artisans who work in sculpture these days, and many of those favor abstract rather than traditional styles. There is only one source for the stone that matches what is in the Great Western Staircase in the world, and it is across the Atlantic Ocean.
On this front at least, the state is prepared. “We ordered extra sandstone blocks,” Collins said. “We’ve got the sandstone here to be able to do additional carvings and there certainly are some blanks.”
Yet the business of updating historic architecture can be contentious.
“Anything like this really could be seen as a slippery slope, and who’s to say what comes next?” said Jay Distefano, president of the Preservation League of New York, which opposes the addition.
He suggested that there might be a different way to honor Ginsburg, and more broadly, grapple with the lack of diversity in historic art and architecture.
“We have to be very careful that we don’t use necessarily today’s sensibilities and rationale to destroy the past, and that it’s important that we understand that just like those people, we are simply a reflection of our time,” Distefano said.
Cara Macri, the Historic Albany Foundation’s director of preservation services, welcomed the state’s approach, from the inclusion of Ginsburg to the consideration of original materials and style which she said added to, rather than diminished, the structure.
“Buildings are a living thing, they have to change to meet the current needs,” Macri said. “Buildings are never done.”
Although Hochul did not initiate the addition of Ginsburg ’s likeness to the staircase, she is enthusiastic about the choice.
“I want people to know, in the future, what her story meant to so many here in our state and across the country,” Hochul said.
When, and if, other new faces will join Ginsburg ’s remains something of a mystery. Hochul said she had a private list of possible additions but declined to share it, although she did name-drop legendary abolitionist Harriet Tubman twice.
The challenge for Hochul is clear: Everyone, it seems, has a suggestion, from Sojourner Truth and Eleanor Roosevelt to Frances Perkins, who, as labor secretary under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, helped craft the policy now known as Social Security.
Would all of the new faces belong to women?
“We’ll see,” Hochul replied with a smile.