From the Archives: Critiquing the New Capitol Designs (1900)

Today will start a three-part series highlighting the process of choosing an architect’s designs for the New Capitol. We all know how it ends, but the getting there is part of the fun. The series comes straight from the archives, via the minutes of the State House Commission, and has been transcribed from the original beautiful handwritten script into this slightly less personal digital format.

To set the stage (and some of this is reported in “The Story of Mississippi’s New Capitol“), the State House Commission had announced their intention to hire an architect and invited interested designers to bring their proposals before the commission. Fourteen men responded, even though there was hardly a month between the announcement and the deadline, and once they saw the plans and heard the presentations, the Commissioners wisely decided they were in a little over their heads and needed an expert opinion.

Bernard Green, photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The expert they ended up with, Bernard Green, turned out to be just the right person to talk through each plan, dispense with the chaff, and summarize the pros and cons of the better ones. Bernard Green had a lifetime of experience with large public building projects behind him, including the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress (1896), and his advice offered here in the minutes focuses not only on the aesthetics of the proposals, but also on the nitty-gritty planning issues that many public commissions overlook entirely in their awe of domes, porticoes, and columns.

Unfortunately, it appears the Commission did not keep the proposals from the various architects, so some of this just has to be visualized, but Green’s words are straight to the point and really don’t need too much visual help. Thanks to Gary Tetley, an architect and Theodore Link scholar, we do have Link’s original proposal and will publish it with tomorrow’s post.

I hope you enjoy delving into the particulars of how our New Capitol came to be as much as I have!

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The State House Commission met in the office of the Commission in the City of Jackson, Miss. this 12th day of June A.D. 1900–at 10:30 o’clock A.M., there being present

  • Governor A.H. Longino, Ex. Off. President
  • Attorney General Monroe McClury
  • Mr. R. H. Thompson
  • Mr. Phil. A. Rush
  • Mr. W.G. Stovall

–Commissioners

The report of Mr. Bernard Green was received and considered by the Commssion, and it was ordered to be spread upon these minutes.

The following is Mr. Green’s report:–

“The Mississippi State House Commission,

Gentlemen: — The points on which you have sought my judgement and advice regarding the fourteen sets of designs and drawings for a new State House or Capitol, recently obtained by a public competition of architects are, first, the probability that the respective authors could execute their designs within the estimates submitted by then, and, second, which of the authors has shown himself to be the best qualified for selection as the architect of the building, these points to be determined by inspection of the drawings and descriptions submitted, considered anonymously. As the time allotted for the competition–one month–was very short for the preparation of thoroughly studied plans of so large and important a building, the readiness of conception and professional preparation with which the designer has attacked the problem is a most valuable indication of his real talent, ability and experience. Such qualifications may be readily detected in the drawings even though they are incomplete and the description meager due to the limited time which a busy architect may have been able to devote to them. The object and function of a State Capitol are mainly to furnish accommodations of due dignity and convenience for the Legislative, Executive and Judicial branches of the Government and the building should be so designed as to give architectural prominence and expression to this trinity of objects and functions. To provide a building that shall meet these requirements and be well lighted and aired from the exterior, as it should be, the plan must be on the order of wings and pavilions. These can also be made to emphasize the importance of the several government branches referred to and give them the needed separation from each other for business convenience. Several of the designs submitted follow out this idea more or less distinctly, by means of a symmetrical three-part plan or three-dome motive, while others treat the building as practically a single rectangular house with no expression of its unique significance. Furthermore the simple and more direct design is always the better so long as dignity and elegance of proportion are preserved. A Capitol, of all buildings, should be strikingly massive, grand, noble–typifying the power, honor, stability and superiority of the government over all individual, corporate or other institutions whatsoever in the state. It should, therefore, be at once recognizable, over all other buildings in the neighborhood, as the Capitol, — regardless of its mere relative size, which may even be small, — and never by any possibility be legitimately mistaken for any other institution whatsoever. Regardless of this principle, however, many State houses are designed to resemble schools, colleges, asylums [not a bad idea, actually–:-)] and even factories and exhibition halls.

Some of the designs before us are open to this criticism, having many windows, thin walls, trifling domes or domed towers, pinnacles and rattling unrestful sky lines. The exterior walls of the building should have good thickness and deep window reveals, giving shade and apparent strength, and the porticos and angles should be deep, giving shadow. The dome or domes should be full, well rounded, with quiet outlines and not too high. The rotunda should be ample unobstructed by stairs or columns and of moderate height, that it may be a rotunda in fact, and not a well hole. It should always be available for an assembly room and meeting place for special occasions and the space it occupies thus rendered useful as well as architecturally imposing. To secure such a building within money limits, some minor conveniences may have to be yielded and the capacity of the building somewhat reduced. $2,000,000 worth of space cannot be had in a $1,000,000 building without thin and tawdry construction and treatment, which, although durable and strong enough, will look cheap and be a credit to nobody. Let the proposed New Capitol be designed and constructed along the lines above indicated, and within the dimensions that the available funds will warrant, and the outcome will be creditable to all concerned.

But I fully believe that the funds at your disposal will provide a building of this character, fairly spacious, and useful for many years to come, if wisely and judiciously designed. It is on these principles that I have rated the authors of the several plans submitted.

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Categories: Architectural Research, Jackson

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  1. Mississippi’s Connection to the New York Public Library « Preservation in Mississippi

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