Ellen Stanton Loves Taking Tourists Back In Time At State Capitol

Jul 30, 2019

To the untrained eye, the pink marble walls outside Gov. Jared Polis' office look like, well, marble walls. But tour guide Ellen Stanton sees something else.

As a curious group of visitors gets closer to the wall, Stanton points out how the wavy lines in the stone create a face that looks like George Washington's.

"And over here we've got a turkey!" Stanton says, as the adults on the tour join the children in 'ooh'ing and 'ahh'ing at the hidden discovery.

Just to be clear, the pioneers who flocked to Colorado during the Gold Rush didn't chisel George Washington's face, or a turkey, into the marble. But it's hard not to see the resemblance after you go on Stanton's tour.

Next, she takes the tour up to the Senate floor to show off some real history.

Ellen Stanton leads a tour at the Colorado state Capitol. The free tours cover everything from the state's first political battles to the stories behind the architecture.
Credit Scott Franz/Capitol Coverage

"Now these are the original desks," she says. "They were first used in 1895. So even before the building was finished, they were so eager to get in here they used this room."

Stanton and the other Capitol tour guides take more than 70,000 people through the building every year — and they have just 45 minutes to share its stories. Visitors learn about the nasty political fight between Henry Brown, the man who donated the land for the Capitol, and the state's first lawmakers. They also learn about the architecture.

"The chandelier is original," Stanton says from the gallery of the Senate chambers. "It weighs 1,700 pounds."

As the tour moves along, Stanton shows off the polished brass railings that were shipped here from Ohio and the intricate wallpaper, which was recently restored to its original appearance.

"I think the architect, Elijah E. Meyers, wanted a wow factor. Right?" she says. "This celebrates democracy. You want people to come in and say, 'This is an awesome room.'"

And 130 years after lawmakers first started meeting here, visitors are still 'ooh'ing and 'ahh'ing when they enter the Capitol. But Stanton also shares the not-so-happy story of what happened to the man who dreamed up the building.

"There had been a cost overrun, and his income was attached to the cost of the building," Stanton says. "So, as the cost of the building went up, so too did his compensation for being the chief architect. And they said, 'Well, we already own the architect's drawings. I think we should fire him.' And that's what happened. So that's an interesting story!"

There are also more light-hearted moments — like the time someone stole the portrait of Abraham Lincoln in the 1990s.

"We still don't know who took it, or why," Stanton says.

Stanton has spent much of her adult life taking people behind the scenes of some of the country's most sacred historic sites. Before coming to Colorado, she took visitors through George Washington's home in Mount Vernon, and the U.S. Capitol building. She fell in love with history when her grandmother showed her a secret in Synecdoche, New York.

"There was an Indian massacre there in 1690, and even today, the buildings have unique features," she said. "In a hall, where (my grandmother) lived, there was a very large piece of furniture. When I was about five or six, she said, 'Come here, I want to show you this' and behind it was a door to a tunnel that led the Mohawk River so that people could escape if there were a raid again. And that really piqued my interest in history."

Ellen Stanton takes guests through the gallery of the state's House of Representatives.
Credit Scott Franz/Capitol Coverage

Now, Stanton is opening new doors to show others the secrets of history in Colorado. With the turn of a key, she opens the large steel door leading up to the iconic dome of the Capitol. For many, this is the highlight of the tour.

Brooklyn Chavez and her family take a group photo.

"It's been really pretty learning about the building, and it's really cool and all the history," Brookyln Chavez says.

Back inside, Stanton says there's also a sort of state capitol fan club around the nation.

"A lot of people are very interested in visiting as many state capitols as they can. And they're very happily share this is my 28th state capitol, and that's always fun," she said.

Free tours of the Colorado Capitol are held weekdays between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.