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Interpreting the Evidence

Great Western Staircase, Looking Up the Staircase, New York State Capitol, c. 1900

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Eras:

    Turn of the Century and WWI (1890 - 1930)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Analysis & Interpretation

  • Grade Level:

    Lower Elementary
    Upper Elementary
    Middle School
    High School
    College University

  • Topics:


  • Primary Source Types:


  • Regions:

    Capital District
    New York State

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load Great Western Staircase, Looking Up the Staircase, New York State Capitol, c. 1900 in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Document Description
View up the Great Western Staircase in the New York State Capitol, circa 1900.
Historical Context
The Great Western Staircase at the New York State Capitol is popularly known as the Million Dollar Staircase.  This famous staircase actually cost closer to $1.5 million and took years to complete.  It is the biggest and most ornate of the three staircases inside the Capitol.  With 444 steps, it spans four stories and is 119 feet high.  The sandstone used for the staircase was imported from Scotland and carved by six hundred stone carvers. The elaborate carvings include seventy-seven portraits of important people, as well as 1,000 smaller faces. The first face carved into the staircase was that of New York's first governor, George Clinton.  Other famous Americans also appear along the staircase, including Christopher Columbus, Henry Hudson, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ulysses S. Grant, Clara Barton, and Susan B. Anthony.  Excerpts from the Declaration of Independence can also be seen along the staircase. 
Essential Question
How is architecture influenced by a society's values and culture?
Check for Understanding
Describe the scene in the photograph and determine the influence of culture on the design.
Historical Challenges
What architect originally designed the Great Western Staircase? The staircase is much more intricately carved than the architect had planned. Why?
Interdisciplinary Connections
Science: Research which materials were used in building the Great Western Staircase. Why were some materials chosen over others?
English Language Arts: Write a research paper on the Great Western Staircase.