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Behind-the-scenes: Eye to eye with the Indiana House Chamber chandelier

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Behind-the-scenes: Eye to eye with the Indiana House Chamber chandelier

Nov 24, 2022 | 7:00 am ET
By Casey Smith
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Behind-the-scenes: Eye to eye with the Indiana House Chamber chandelier
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The chandelier within the House Chamber at the Indiana Statehouse was lowered Nov. 7, 2022, for regular maintenance. (Casey Smith/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

Peek inside the House Chamber at the Indiana Statehouse and it’s impossible to miss the brightly-lit fixture crowning high overhead: a massive brass chandelier. 

It contains no crystals and minimal flourish, but the chandelier —  hanging from the ceiling 25-feet above — is a sort of homage to lawmakers as they carry out Hoosiers’ business down below. Each of its 100 lights are meant for a member of the Indiana House of Representatives.

The architectural icon isn’t original to the Indiana Capitol, though.

Bring on the history

Created by the Custom Lighting Corporation of Chicago and installed in 1966, the brass fixture replaced a previous chandelier there before.

The switch came just two years before a number of original corridor chandeliers — located elsewhere in the Statehouse — were also removed and restored or replaced with more modern fixtures. 

Spanning 18 feet in diameter and weighing roughly 1,200 pounds, it is the largest chandelier in the Statehouse, according to the building’s tour office. 

If you’re looking for original Statehouse chandeliers, however, you’ll have to journey to the fourth floor. 

When the Capitol first opened in 1888 — it’s the fifth building to house the state government, by the way — Indianapolis did not have the capacity to produce enough electricity to light the entire Statehouse. Rather than strapping Hoosier taxpayers with the expense of building a new generating plant, state leaders chose to first light the building with gas candles. 

Major remodeling was later done within the Statehouse between 1917 and 1920. The project included the introduction of electric chandeliers, which replaced the original combination gas and electric fixtures on the second floor, in the Governor’s Office and in the Senate and House Chambers.

Under the direction of then-Gov. Robert Orr, a major re-creation of the Statehouse to its original appearance followed in 1986. It was then that 40 original brass chandeliers were restored and 67 were replicated. Each chandelier had 200 different pieces to be replicated or cleaned, according to Statehouse records.

Bits of the past still remain. The globes that are upturned on the fourth floor chandeliers today were the gas candlelights. The down-turned globes were installed to incorporate electricity when it became available.

The Supreme Court chamber on the third floor also retains many of its original furnishings, including a chandelier made of solid brass.

Even if not the original chandelier, there’s no doubt that Indiana lawmakers have long looked up at similar fixtures for more than a century — even if with some caution.

One 1907 newspaper account recalls the hesitation of Republican Sen. Henry Pearson, of Bedford, who could frequently be seen looking up at the chandelier overhead. The former legislator said that was because his brother-in-law once walked into a drug store and was nearly struck by a falling chandelier.

“Every time the senator looks up, he thinks of his brother-in-law’s escape,” the Plymouth Tribune reported. 

Almost 40 years later, a different news article in the Sullivan Daily Times recounts an “enlived” moment within the House Chamber in February 1945. 

Legislative debate among representatives was jolted into a recess after a two-pound piece of plaster fell from the ceiling, striking the chandelier before hitting the floor in an aisle between rows of lawmakers’ seats. The ceiling piece landed just inches away from the House Majority leader. Minor renovations took place in the Statehouse a few years later.

Taking care of the chandelier today

It took Scott Kamelhair, an electrician, about 90 seconds to lower the House chandelier on a recent November morning, parking the lighting fixture just above lawmakers’ desks.

He controls the motion of the fixture with a key switch now, but as recently as 10 years ago, the chandelier could still only be lowered by using a hand crank.

Once the chandelier is down, Kamelhair removes the burnouts, unscrewing and replacing the small bulbs from within their clear glass shades.

It’s an uncommon sight — the chandelier is brought down just once or twice a year. That’s usually ahead of Organization Day and the start of each new legislative session.

“Right now, I bring it down whenever I need to because the bulbs all get changed at different times,” Kamelhair said, noting that the chandelier now contains all LED bulbs. “I’m hoping to get it to where we can just change them once every couple years, all of them at once.”

The last major overhaul of the chandelier was due in 2013, when the state spent some $80,000 restoring the fixture that was then being held together in spots by zip ties. The state hired experts from New Hampshire to remove and dismantle the chandelier.

Workers from Acu-Bright took the chandelier apart piece by piece before pulling out and replacing old wire. They hauled parts away to be cleaned and repaired, too, ahead of the 2014 legislative session.

Although the Statehouse used to employ a full-time electrician to change light bulbs in the building, Kamelhair, a local contract electrician, now oversees the upkeep of the lighting systems in the House and Senate chambers.

The House chandelier is scheduled to drop once more this year, sometime in December, according to legislative staff. Housekeeping staff will clean each individual bulb and remove layers of dust that build throughout the year.

“It’s fascinating. That was my first thought when I got here … I still think that now,” Kamelhair said. “It’s a very unique job. It’s not something people get to see everyday.”