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A Capitol Idea

Collecting Memories in Every State



Vintage postcards illustrate the different capital buildingsthat Wilton’s Jim Burch has a special connection to.

Thirty-nine of the 50 have domes. Only four were built before the 19th century. Oklahoma’s has an active oil well, and New York’s is said to be haunted. 

Many people collect material objects like rare stamps or snow globes or books on Winston Churchill. Collecting is an activity that demands physical space as well as a commitment to the maintenance and sometimes documentation of the collection. That is, unless you are Jim Burch.

Burch, a retired history teacher and long-time Wiltonian, just finished collecting a set of life experiences, and he has nothing to show for it—except memories, stories, and interesting factoids to share at dinner parties. Over the past five decades, Burch has visited every one of the 50 state capitol buildings. A road trip to Montana, Idaho, Nebraska, California, and Arizona—the final five on his checklist—took place just a few months ago. Mission accomplished. Collection complete. 

The idea started like this: Burch grew up in West Hartford where his fifth-grade field trip was a tour of the state’s capitol building a few miles away. “I remember three things about that visit,” he recalls, “Feeling dizzy while looking up at the very tall dome, a tree on the property with a Civil War canon embedded in it, and a double-wide chair to accommodate a rather large Senator.”

“I was a teacher for 35 years,” Burch explains, “and my interests in American history, government, and architecture coalesced logically into a fascination with state capitol buildings. Each state in this country is iconic for a variety of reasons, and each has a capitol building that represents the state’s values, inherent cultures, and laws.” In addition, each offers either a guided tour led by an enthusiastic volunteer or a self-guided tour offered via brochure or digital app. Visitors learn about the design features of the Beaux-Arts or Greek Revival influence or about a governor’s desk made from the state’s native trees. They might peruse the capitol’s decorative art, murals, and paintings, or visit the legislative chambers; some have a museum. “One of my biggest surprises was finding a full-sized stuffed bison inside Wyoming’s capitol. And my biggest disappointment was arriving at Minnesota’s capitol only to find it completely closed for renovation. The best I could do was stand on the steps.” 

During Burch’s quest, he almost always traveled solo. “I never found a companion who shared the same goal or who could sustain the interest,” he explains. His longest trip involved driving through the states that hug the west bank of the Mississippi, touring 13 capitols and seeing much of the Great Plains along the way. “Although I love the three oldest capitol buildings—Maryland, Virginia, and Massachusetts—my favorite is Nebraska,” says Burch. “It is very dramatic in the plains. The architecture and interior design are stylized art deco.” 

Spoken like a true teacher. Burch continues, “The curiosity of seeing something new doesn’t get old. Learning lasts a lifetime.” True to his words, he is on to the next challenge: visiting all the European nations by next year with Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova on his agenda in just a few weeks. 

There has been an abundance of research in the field of social psychology over the past decade, showing that experiences (which are fleeting) bring us more happiness than possessions (which are tangible). Cornell psychology professor Thomas Gilovich says: “Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods. You can really like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences.”

It seems fair to say that collecting life experiences makes you a more interesting person. Having an ample supply of personal anecdotes and facts to share is a valuable contribution to keeping any social interaction flowing. Not all interesting people have lived unusual lives, but like Jim Burch, they do have unusual stories to tell. So if you find yourself sitting next to him at a dinner party, make sure to ask which state capitol is round, which one has a room shaped like a volcano, and which one has a wooden dome constructed without using a single nail. 


Healthy Obsessions
A handful of other Wiltonians share Jim Burch’s approach to collecting. Emily Old is well on her way to hiking all of the 46 peaks in the Adirondack Mountains. Chris Capelle, an avid runner, plans to participate in a sanctioned race in every town in Connecticut—all 169 of them. And Claire and Eric Craven just wrapped up their two-year-long odyssey to attend a baseball game in every major league stadium.

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October 2017

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