Making a Masterpiece

Making a Masterpiece

Making a Masterpiece: Artistic Visions for the Senate focuses on the artistic vision, planning and labor of our Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. The current, 1906 version of the PA State Capitol replaced the "Cobb's Capitol" of 1901. After commissioning Henry Ives Cobb to design the Capitol, his 1901 reveal disappointed the Legislature and they held a design competition to complete the existing Cobb Capitol, but with supplemental funds. This competition was won by a Philadelphian architect, Joseph Huston, who would begin construction in 1902 and dedicate the building in 1906.

In this design competition and selection, Huston appealed to many artists to include their internationally known work into the building. Among them, Henry Chapman Mercer and Violet Oakley of the Philadelphia area would play huge roles in the Senate Wing and Senate Chamber artistic renderings.

With a focus on these three key players, Huston, Mercer and Oakley, Making a Masterpiece aims to micro focus on the planning, sketching, contracts and correspondence that occurred to make it all possible. While art, both fine and folk, appears flawless and simple, we know real work went into it. We hope this exhibit shows itself to be a celebration of labor and love for the Commonwealth.

  • Photo of Violet Oakley in front of Senate Chamber mural, "Unity". 113-AAA-AAA_oaklviol_64256, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
  • Historic American Buildings Survey, 1935 Copy of an old photo in Dauphin County Historical Society VIEW FROM THE WEST, MAIN BUILDING - First Capitol Buildings, Harrisburg, Dauphin County, PA Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.
  • Cobb's Capitol, Pennsylvania State Archives.
  • Burned Capitol, Pennsylvania State Archives.
  • Pennsylvania Capitol Competition Drawings, Pennsylvania State Archives.
  • Rotunda 1, Pennsylvania State Archives.
  • Rotunda 2, Pennsylvania State Archives.
  • State Capitol [exterior], William Rau, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.
  • Senate Chamber [interior], Pennsylvania State Archives.
  • Senate Chamber panels in studio, 1926. Violet Oakley papers, 1841-1981. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
  • Violet Oakley sketchbook (ART-NC2198). Courtesy of The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
  • Letter, Oakley to Mr. Zantzinger. Pennsylvania State Archives.
  • Miscellaneous hand tools. Mercer Museum.
  • Mercer advertisement for Moravian Tile Works. Historic American Engineering Record, National Park Service.
  • Figures 113, 114, excerpted page 160 from Henry Chapman Mercer and the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works. Fig. 113. "Paring the Apples." Photograph taken by HCM in 1897 to document the use of American pioneer handicraft tools. Collection, SL/BCHS. Fig. 114. Paring the Apples. Mosaic for Pennsylvania State Capitol pavement, Harrisburg, Pa., 1904. Photo by James R. Blackaby, 1986.
  • Study for Indian Making Fire. Mercer Museum.
  • Study for Raccoon. Mercer Museum.
  • Indian Making Fire tiles (2). Mercer Museum.
  • Guide Book to the Tiled Pavement in the Pennsylvania Capitol. Produced by the Capitol Preservation Committee.
  • Handbook of the new Capitol of Pennsylvania Charles H. Caffin. Reprinted by the Capitol Preservation Committee.
  • The State Capitol of Pennsylvania. 1906. The Telegraph Printing Company.
  • Henry Chapman Mercer's Moravian Tile Floor Map. Capitol Preservation Committee.


  • To pay tribute to Pennsylvanian artists whose contributions of fine, folk, and decorative arts to the Pennsylvania Capitol Building embody what it is to be a Pennsylvanian.
  • To highlight the historical value of art, sketches, letters, tools, and ephemera in the study of artists who completed commissions in the Senate of Pennsylvania.
  • To emphasize the importance of sketches, models and photographic renderings as a part of the creative process and show the transition from idea to execution.
  • To show the review process each Capitol artist faced throughout the production of their work, including meetings with the Capitol Building Commission, submissions of drafts, letters to the Governor, and letters/communications with Joseph Huston, architect.

Pennsylvania Academic Standards

The Senate of Pennsylvania seeks to fulfill their mission of civic education by meeting PA Academic Standards with our temporary exhibits. Making a Masterpiece concerns itself with the planning, vision and innovation involved in a range of folk and fine art work production. The below standards are represented by the Senate Library Making a Masterpiece exhibit and we hope to be useful to educators who hope to use our content, resources and exhibits with their students.

Academic Standards for the Arts and Humanities

22 Pa. Code, Chapter 4, Appendix D (#006-276) Final Form-Annex A July 18, 2002

  • Explain the historical, cultural and social context of an individual work in the arts.
  • Relate works in the arts chronologically to historical events (e.g., 10,000 B.C. to present).
  • Relate works in the arts to varying styles and genre and to the periods in which they were created (e.g., Bronze Age, Ming Dynasty, Renaissance, Classical, Modern, Post-Modern, Contemporary, Futuristic, others).
  • Analyze a work of art from its historical and cultural perspective.
  • Analyze how historical events and culture impact forms, techniques and purposes of works in the arts (e.g., Gilbert and Sullivan operettas)
  • Know and apply appropriate vocabulary used between social studies and the arts and humanities.
  • Relate works in the arts to geographic regions:
    • North America
  • Identify, describe and analyze the work of Pennsylvania Artists in dance, music, theatre and visual arts.
  • Identify, explain and analyze philosophical beliefs as they relate to works in the arts (e.g., classical architecture, rock music, Native American dance, contemporary American musical theatre).
  • Identify, explain and analyze historical and cultural differences as they relate to works in the arts (e.g., PLAYS BY Shakespeare, works by Michelangelo, ethnic dance and music).
  • Identify, explain and analyze traditions as they relate to works in the arts (e.g., story telling - plays, oral histories- poetry, work songs- blue grass).
  • Identify, explain and analyze common themes, forms and techniques from works in the arts (e.g., Copland and Graham's Appalachian Spring and Millet's The Gleaners).

Exhibition Team

  • Alexandra Acri Barbush, Librarian of the Senate
  • Lindsey Walsh, Research & Exhibit Specialist
  • Donna Wheeler, Record Services Manager, Senate Library
  • George Soule, Research Services Manager, Senate Library
  • Martavis Washington, Research & Exhibit Specialist

Democratic Caucus Operations Staff

  • Helen E. Mabus, Graphics Director

Republican Communications Staff

  • Gregory Milligan, Director
  • Douglas Gross, Director of Photography
  • Jason Troutman, Videographer
  • Todd Krick, Director of Graphic Arts
  • Christopher J. Guerrisi, Photographer

Senate Print Shop/Digital Production

  • Chris Keller, Director
  • Caleb Gordon, Deputy Director

Contributing Organizations and Individuals

  • The Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee
  • Jason Wilson, Historian, Capitol Preservation Committee
  • Jason Tully, Legislative Applications Supervisor, LDPC
  • David Burton, Computer Programmer, LDPC
  • Amy Hammond, Curator, The State Museum of Pennsylvania
  • Beth Hager, Director, State Museum of Pennsylvania
  • Aaron McWilliams, Archivist, Pennsylvania State Archives
  • Rich Saylor, Archivist, Pennsylvania State Archives
  • Ken Frew, Research Librarian/Archivist, Historical Society of Dauphin County
  • Kathy Hale, Supervisor for Public Services, Government Documents Librarian, State Library of Pennsylvania
  • Kristin Lapos , Collections Manager, Mercer Museum
  • Ms. Kyle McKoy, President and Executive Director, Mercer Museum
  • Ms. Heather Cevasco, Board Chair, Mercer Museum
  • Mr. Cory Amsler, Vice President, Mercer Museum
  • Hoang Tran, Director of Archives, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA)
  • Library Company of Philadelphia
  • Karen Kirsheman, Free Library Parkway Central

Special thanks to Secretary Martin for continued support for the mission of the Senate Library of Pennsylvania