Art, history, architecture, and politics all seamlessly blend in one of New Jersey’s best kept secrets — a public art tour of the New Jersey State House.
While the main state capitol building is closed for renovations, the Office of Legislative Services has been offering various tours.
The Friday New Jersey State House Annex art tour offers a pleasing exploration of the state’s visual art collection that makes historic sense: The State House Annex was the home of the first New Jersey State Museum and Library and maintains some original touches.
And since the tour is free, it is easy on both the eye and wallet.
Let’s start off with the annex building itself. It was built in the late 1920s by architects J. Osborne Hunt of Trenton and Hugh A. Kelly of Jersey City.
The building is an elegant U-shaped structure fashioned with Indiana limestone. Tour participants walk through the two wings and past a fountain to the entrance at the center of the U.
Check out the art deco-inspired facade with the pattern of windows and the metal doors with images designed by Julius Caesar Loester (1890-1973), a New York City-based sculptor whose other works include memorials from New York State to Mississippi. The work here provides an overview of New Jersey history, including Native Americans spear fishing, the arrival of English settlers, and state maps.
After passing through security, a New Jersey State Legislative Service member greets visitors in the vintage marble hallway before escorting them to the orientation area — the former museum area now used for public and legislative hearings.
The first things that stand out are the windows. A secular celebration of New Jersey, they represent the artistry of glass masters George Sotter and J. Kenneth Leap.
Sotter was a Bucks County-based visual artist originally from Pittsburgh, where he had designed stained glass windows for churches created by American architect Ralph Adams Cram — a major proponent for Collegiate Gothic Architecture and Princeton University’s resident architect in the 1920s and ’30s.
Leap is a contemporary Runnemeade, New Jersey-based stained glass artist who has attracted national attention.
Sotter was commissioned by the State of New Jersey to create the original windows for the museum. And some of his vintage glass provides glowing images of wildlife, nature, and Greek mythology.
Yet more interestingly, others represent the state on both a large and small scale.
Sotter’s is a glass of the New Jersey State Seal with a shield, horse head, and the female figures of Liberty and Ceres. Smaller images are mixed with repetitive designs that can easily be overlooked, like the small glass panel of a hot air balloon. It’s a commemoration of the nation’s first air flight in Gloucester County.
Leap’s glass fills the opposite wall. The artist blends his own style with Sotter’s approach but adds his own touches of history. Created for the New Jersey State House renovations in the 1990s, one window features a colorful depiction of one of the state’s most notable inhabitants — the Hadrosaurus foulkii (considered the world’s first historically recorded human-found dinosaur skeleton).
Other Leap designs include the state insect (the bee) and the animal (the horse).
The committee room is also home to several murals by noted New Hope impressionist Rae Sloan Bredin (1880-1933), another tip to the then-nationally acclaimed nearby Bucks County arts movement.
Included in Bredin’s murals is his 1928 depiction of the Delaware Water Gap. The works featuring misted images and subdued hues were created for the New Jersey State Museum.
As another part of the historic state house renovations, contemporary artists Ani Rosskam and William Leech were contracted to restore and create murals for the area.
In addition to being part of the legacy of the artists based in Roosevelt, New Jersey, the two professional artists are known for producing individual works, public art, and architectural designs.
Right outside the room is Howard McCormick’s romantic mural of New Jersey’s indigenous people, the Lenapes. Originally from Indiana, McCormick (1875-1943) studied with famed American artist and teacher William Merritt Chase, studied in Paris, established studios in New Jersey and New York City, and created murals for the New Jersey State Museum and the Museum of Natural History in New York.
Following is the former New Jersey State Museum’s children’s room. Again, the artistry connects both past and present and highlights Trenton’s once internationally known ceramics industry. The historic tile was created by the Mueller Tile Company of Trenton with local legend saying the animal designs were created by company founder Herman Mueller.
Contemporary Lambertville-based ceramic artist Katherine Hackl was involved by the state Council on the Arts “Arts Inclusion Project” — a part of the renovation work in the 1990s — to refurbish the original design and continue the animal motif by using British writer Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So” stories as a playful unifying work. Hackl’s work is also prominently displayed on the walls of the Trenton Transit Station.
The next stop will have visitors looking up — literally. Above a small concourse is J. Kenneth Leap’s large painted and stained glass skylight, “360 Degrees of New Jersey.”
Also created for the Arts Inclusion Program in the 1990s, the work is an artistic tour-de-force as well as a visual tour-of-visual-fun of New Jersey — both fact and fantasy.
The facts are both clear and obscure. George Washington in Trenton is easy. And, yes, that is Albert Einstein standing next to one of Princeton University’s Gothic towers, Lucy the Elephant outside Atlantic City, and the world’s first drive-in movie theater in Camden.
But others may draw a blank, like Elizabeth White who cultivated the blueberry in Burlington County. And what about that man in the sea? That’s only the stained glass maker himself.
Then there are the famous events and characters that exist only in the state’s collective imagination. That includes the Jersey Devil and the Martian invasion launched through actor and director Orson Welles’ 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio production that used the Mercer County town of Grovers Mill as Ground Zero.
Along the long and labyrinthine hallways that seem to mirror the creation of legislation, the tour passes various framed works, including contemporary New Jersey artist David Ahlsted’s “Delaware River Series.”
Created for murals elsewhere in the capitol complex, the framed pieces bring the viewer from the “Delaware River at Phillipsburg” past Trenton, Roebling, and Camden, to “Tankers & Refineries on the Delaware” and, at last, to “Fishing Boats, East Point Light House.” To capture the light and sky of the river, the artist sometimes traveled with tugboats during their daily runs.
Depending on the direction of the tour, be on the lookout for a few bright spots between the highlights. That includes artist Livio Saganic’s terrazzo floor murals “State Symbols” and “Goldfinch Square,” combining both the color of the birds and the hues of the state’s farmlands and oceans. The Yugoslavian-born artist served as the chair of the arts department at Drew University and created public art projects for both New Jersey and New York State.
Yet three stops — depending on the tour — are masterworks of their own.
The first is “Session Day” by prominent contemporary New Jersey artist Robert Birmelin, whose works are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, and the Hirshhorn Museum. Using photograph-like blurred human action, the large wall painting captures the whirlwind of political energy related to passing state bills and budgets.
Then there is “Resolution” by New Jersey artist and former College of New Jersey professor Hiroshi Murata. The 14-panel marquetry — laminated wood to create patterns and designs — brings the outside environs of the statehouse indoors and shows the capitol building and the surrounding bridges and skyline.
And finally there is late New Jersey artist and Rutgers University art professor John Goodyear’s “Dawn of Law,” five marble bas-reliefs depicting several historic lawmakers including Hammurabi and Moses — a fitting ending to the place where law has its first and last words.
Public Artwork Tours, New Jersey State House Annex, 145 West State Street, Trenton. Fridays at 1:30 p.m. through September 27. Free. 609-847-3150 or www.njstatehousetours.org