‘It's been really pretty enjoyable’: Tours resume, visitors return to Kansas Statehouse
The Kansas Statehouse, often dubbed the people's house, was missing one thing for the past year: the people.
Yes, elected representatives traipsed to Topeka during the COVID-19 pandemic to continue legislative business. Lobbyists and staff joined them in the building for the January session, causing the 304-foot dome to echo with voices from a crowd that was a fraction of its pre-pandemic size.
But limits on visitors meant no school groups, no curious tourists making a detour off of Interstate 70 and no children standing in front of John Steuart Curry's epic painting "Tragic Prelude," a history book textbook brought to life before their very eyes.
That changed Monday, as the Kansas Statehouse once again resumed tours, bringing a sense of normalcy back to downtown Topeka as a trickle of visitors to the seat of state government turned into a waterfall.
Only one person showed up for a 9 a.m. tour, leaving staff wondering how many onlookers would show throughout the day. But almost two dozen visitors came for a tour two hours later, numbers which would have been above average even before COVID-19.
Not everything is back to normal — tours to the top of the Statehouse dome have yet to resume, with staff hoping to have them back up and running later this summer. And the four-times-a-day tours require juggling for workers, with many part-time guides still laid off.
‘It is an amazing job’: Tour guides excited to get back in the action
Norm Hodge is one of the guides who is back to work, although he said he was unsure how to feel when he got the call that tours at the Statehouse were resuming.
Hodge already had spent 20 years working part time at the Kansas Historical Society, giving tours in the capitol since 2012 as a way to pass the time after retiring from his career as an elementary school teacher in Seaman Unified School District 345.
He said he was initially tempted to stay retired but wound up being lured back by the joy of introducing others to the ins and outs of the 118-year-old building.
"Being able to be around people again, just being able to share some of the history here at the capitol building — it's been really pretty enjoyable," Hodge said.
A layoff of more than a year meant some facts took a little longer to spring to mind, Hodge said, although tour attendees likely wouldn't have guessed as he rattled off facts on everything from the state's Civil War history to the origin of the building's marble floors.
"You almost just have to do the tour to get into the feeling of how to do it," he said.
For Quon Nguyen, meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic meant his stint as a tour guide was hit on pause before it really was able to begin. Nguyen, a senior at Washburn University, started working for the Historical Society in February 2020, working three Saturdays before classes went remote and the Statehouse was shuttered.
He was in some ways thankful for the break, however, noting a stint interning in the building during the legislative session gave him a greater familiarity with its quirks.
"It is a really cool building," Nguyen said. "It is an amazing job, and it is nice to get back to it."
Hodge praised the rapt attention of his first tour groups back. He was especially excited about the raft of children in attendance, many of whom spouted off Kansas history facts without a second thought.
For Lenae Weichel and Alyssa Arata, the trip to the Statehouse was indeed a family affair. The two sisters are from Illinois, but their parents are from Kansas and both have fond memories of past trips to the capitol.
"Even though I've been here three or four times, I learn something new every time," Weichel said.
The re-opening of the Statehouse prompted an excuse to bring their children to the building and, as Arata put it, get a better sense of the state where their grandparents grew up.
But that didn't mean the adults didn't gain something from the experience. Arata hadn't been to the Statehouse since a $330 million renovation was completed in 2014, and Weichel hadn't seen the third-floor mural commemorating the Brown v. Board of Education decision.
"I especially like state capitols," Weichel said. "At the time they were built, they were an opportunity to see what was important in the state and what people are proud of. And as they evolve, you see things like the Brown v. Board mural ... it is evolving and changing and it is not just static."