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Why there’s an ode to natural gas in the Pennsylvania Capitol

A stained glass window personifying Pennsylvania's natural gas industry.
Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee
A stained glass window personifying Pennsylvania's natural gas industry in the Pennsylvania House Chamber. The window is one of 24 designed by artist William Brantly Van Ingen.

Almost every inch of the Pennsylvania Capitol is adorned with artwork, from grand landscapes to figures such as William Penn. The halls are also full of hidden surprises for observant visitors, including a window that’s dedicated to one of the state’s most abundant resources: natural gas.

The window in question is a more-than-100-year-old circular, stained glass porthole, which can be seen up close from the floor of the House chamber. The area is typically reserved for state lawmakers and privileged guests, but one visitor managed to snap a few photos of the artwork recently.

The pictures, tweeted by SEIU 668 President Steve Catanese, show a 24-karat-gold leaf-clad panel that hangs above the window, depicting a woman clothed in green.

Two cherubs hold up a scroll that reads “natural gas.” They sit next to others, holding other scrolls that read things such as “Liberty” and “Justice.”

“It’s kind of an odd juxtaposition,” Capitol Preservation Committee Historian Jason Wilson said during a tour of the chamber last month.

Natural gas has been a fixture of statehouse debate for the last 15 years, when Pennsylvania’s fracking boom began. The process leaks methane, contributes to climate change and can harm the environment. Yet some communities in western and north central Pa. have come to rely on the economic activity it generates.

Wilson explained that juxtaposition makes perfect sense when you know why those windows were created in the first place.

Jason L. Wilson, Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee historian.
Jeremy Long
Jason L. Wilson, historian with the Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee, talks about the history of the House chamber’s ceiling in the state Capitol building in Harrisburg on March 24, 2023.

The modern-day Pennsylvania Capitol building was built between 1902 and 1906, to replace an original building that burned in 1897. A specially-created Capitol Building Committee oversaw construction and the creation of artwork, which altogether cost $13.5 million – almost half a billion in today’s money. Wilson explained lawmakers used corporate debt payments and other revenue sources to pay for the job, since there was no state income tax at the time.

Around the same time, Pennsylvania companies were among the top producers of things like steel, oil – and yes, natural gas. The building’s designers took the opportunity to show off.

“There’s only about a 20-year period, maybe 1890 to 1910, where we were at the height of our industrial might in Pennsylvania,” Wilson said. “So they wanted to showcase a commonwealth at its height of industry [and] the height of commercialism.

“So [the windows] are just representations of things that Pennsylvania was famous for at the turn of the last century.”

There are 14 window shrines all around the chamber, depicting all kinds of stuff made famous by Pennsylvania. Ten others hang in the state Senate chamber. Each of the designs had to pass muster with the Building Committee.

“All of those gentlemen, along with the architect [Joseph Huston] and then-incoming Gov. Samuel Pennypacker would have reviewed that and said ‘that makes sense’ to be ornamented in the windows,” Wilson said.

William Brantley Van Ingen, the artist behind each of the windows, chose more than a dozen Pennsylvania-specific items to portray in the House alone. Some, as Wilson explained, are obvious: the steel of Western Pennsylvania, the oil from the 1859 Drake Well in Venango County, and the state’s burgeoning natural gas industry.

“[Natural gas] was found over a century ago. There were gas wells at that time,” Wilson said.

There’s also a window dedicated to bridge building, a lesser-known but still important industrial contribution from the Keystone State.

“The design that John Roebling and then Washington Roebling used on The Brooklyn Bridge with its wire rope, was first used on the Allegheny Portage Railroad,” Wilson said.

Other windows portray what Wilson called “abstractions:” abundance, religion, and education.

“Pennsylvania was famous, with the Education Act of [1834], for the first publicly funded, state-sponsored education program for everyone,” he said. “When you go back and look at the history, these are things that Pennsylvania was famous for.”

At the end of last month’s tour, Wilson said each piece of art in the state Capitol building is meant to tell a different part of the state’s story as its 20th century designers knew it.

“Joseph Huston, the architect, really wanted to make it a palace of art. He thought that as you walk through the building, you should be able to read the history of Pennsylvania within the walls. That’s kind of what the building represents,” he said.