A Tale of Two Domes: Mississippi and Arkansas

A few months ago, Blake Wintory, director of Lakeport Plantation Museum–which because it’s just across the river from Greenville makes him an honorary Mississippian–e-mailed me with a question that kind of blew my mind. He asked if I knew that the Arkansas Capitol dome was designed by the same architect that designed the Mississippi Capitol dome and that therefore they would fit into our “Architectural Twins” series. I thought he was saying that our much beloved Theodore Link had somehow designed the Arkansas dome, but turns out, the story over in Arkansas is and has been that George Mann, the first architect of the Arkansas capitol, actually designed the Mississippi dome as well.

As Blake began to relate this admittedly confused and confusing story, I realized that this should be a debate that the MissPres universe should be aware of and participate in. Blake has obliged by conducting his own research, re-visiting sources from old articles, asking questions of knowledgeable people, and putting his own perspective on it all.

This week’s four-part series is the result of Blake’s work. Regardless of what you think of his conclusions, you have to agree this is a whopper of a Southern story, with enormous egos crashing into each other, accusations and counter-accusations flying back and forth, and good ol’ political intrigue thrown in for good measure. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, and I hope we can get people who know more about the Mississippi Capitol than I do to jump in with their own thoughts about the issue.

One great thing to remember about this story, at least if you’re a Mississippian, is that Mississippi’s Capitol project came off without a hitch and therefore makes us look like a shining example of competence and reasonableness compared to Arkansas. We should enjoy that feeling on the very rare occasions it comes to us :-)

Mississippi State Capitol Dome (left), 1900-1903; Arkansas State Capitol Dome (right), 1900-1916

“Mr. [Cass] Gilbert was not the designer of the present [Arkansas] dome. It is a direct copy of the dome on the new Mississippi Capitol….This Mississippi Capitol dome has a curious history. I was one of the competitors for the Mississippi Capitol but the Board selected the plans of Theodore Link of St. Louis…Shortly after the competition was decided I received a letter from Mr. Link, who was a warm personal friend, stating the Capitol Commission of Mississippi, in selecting his plan, had made it a condition that he eliminate the campanile and place a dome like the one I had on my design on the building. Courteously, he asked me if I had any objections to his using this design. Of course I told him I would be glad to have him use it and sent him the design of the dome I had on my drawings, and that was the way it was built.”

– George R. Mann, first architect for the Arkansas State Capitol, September 30, 1937

Are the domes on the Mississippi and Arkansas State Capitols twins, with the Arkansas dome based on Mississippi’s? Did Theodore Link really borrow Mann’s dome design and incorporate it into his design for the Mississippi Capitol as architect George R. Mann claimed in 1937? Architectural historians in Arkansas and the Arkansas Secretary of State’s office have made this interpretation since as early as 1964. Since then, the interpretation has entered into mainstream publications like Temples of Democracy: The State Capitols of the U.S.A. (1976) and Almanac of Architecture and Design (2006).

Architecturally, both domes are derivative of Sir Christopher Wren’s dome on St. Paul’s Cathedral. All three have a continuous colonnade, a balustrade above, simple ribbing, and lantern-style cupolas. Mississippi’s dome appears to closer to Wren’s original with Corinthian columns and rectangular windows above the balustrade. The Arkansas dome has unfluted Ionic columns and is windowless above the balustrade.

The Arkansas and Mississippi Capitol projects, starting within a year of each other, did intersect. Authorization for Arkansas’s new capitol came in April 1899, while Mississippi followed in February 1900. Arkansas chose architect, George R. Mann of St. Louis in 1899, who also submitted plans for the Mississippi Capitol in 1900. When Arkansas’s cornerstone was laid on November 27, 1900, on hand were Mississippi Governor Andrew H. Longino and Bishop Charles B. Galloway of Jackson. In May 1903, as Mississippi’s Capitol came to completion, Arkansas’s Capitol Commission visited the Mississippi Capitol building to “obtain all the information that in their judgment would be of value in the prosecution of our work.” While the Mississippi project sped to completion in three years, the Arkansas project dragged on for 16 years, causing Arkansas’s leaders to call in Mississippi’s new Capitol architect, Theodore Link, to consult on the Arkansas project. Finally, in a 1937 letter to his children, George Mann, who was dismissed as architect in 1909 and replaced by Cass Gilbert of New York City, claimed the Mississippi dome was actually his design. According to Mann’s version of events, Link asked Mann’s permission to use his dome design for the Mississippi Capitol. Then in 1909, according to Mann, Arkansas’s second architect, Cass Gilbert, copied the Mississippi dome for Arkansas’s Capitol.

Rendering based on George R. Mann’s specifications, showing unbuilt St. Peter’s style dome, ca. 1900. Courtesy of the Arkansas Secretary of State’s Office.

The last claim requires some scrutiny. Over the next few posts, I’ll look closer at the history and historiography of Arkansas’s dome and the veracity of Mann’s claims of authorship of the Mississippi and Arkansas domes.

First, a little background on the Arkansas Capitol and its two main actors: George R. Mann & George W. Donaghey

Unlike Mississippi, the Arkansas Capitol project suffered numerous problems: an unrealistic price tag of $1,000,000, insufficient funding, political opposition (Governor Jeff Davis fiercely opposed the new Capitol and even tried to steal the blueprints), four Capitol Commissions, construction errors, bribery, and political grandstanding.

Source: Building A State Capitol, by George W. Donaghey

Arkansas’s Capitol Commission selected George R. Mann of St. Louis as the architect in 1899. Their decision was, no doubt, influenced by the fact that Mann’s winning drawings of the Montana State Capitol were already hanging in the State House during debate over a new Capitol. Mann’s Montana Capitol was never built, but that design strongly influenced his Arkansas design, including a St. Peter’s style dome. This dome was never built, but nonetheless the design was printed on postcards and other publications between 1900 and 1909.

In 1909, Governor George W. Donaghey, newly elected, dismissed Mann along with the contractors. Mann continued to practice in Little Rock designing many important building in the city and state. At least twelve of his designs in the state are on the National Register. In 1937, he wrote a letter to his family describing his role in the construction of the Arkansas Capitol. The letter was a rebuttal to former Governor Donaghey, who had just published his own account of the Capitol’s construction.

George W. Donaghey, the other key figure in the history of the Arkansas Capitol, served two terms on the Capitol Commission (1899-1901, 1913-1917) and two, two-year terms as the state’s governor (1909-1913). As a professional builder, he was the only commissioner in the project’s entire history with construction experience. Despite this experience, in 1899, he laid the foundation on a true east-west axis, unaware that Little Rock’s streets run southeast to northwest (parallel to the Arkansas River); he later claimed the error was a good thing. Governor Jeff Davis (1901-1907), who opposed a new Capitol, dismissed all the capitol commissioners (including Donaghey), as he looked for ways to end the project. Donaghey, despite being an outsider, maintained an intense interest in the project. In 1902 he made a private offer to Governor Davis to finish construction at a reduced rate. In 1903, he publicly bid to be the contractor, but was passed over when he refused to use some “native materials.” Even as construction progressed, Donaghey made political hay over the Capitol, accusing the contractors, Caldwell & Drake of Columbus, Indiana, of fleecing taxpayers and using inferior materials and building a “death trap.” The issue, among others, won him the governor’s office in 1908.

Postcard showing the original St. Peter’s type dome that George Mann originally designed for the Arkansas Capitol in 1900.

In 1909, with construction stopped again over lack of funding, Governor Donaghey orchestrated tests to “prove” inferior construction by the contractors. The tests helped him win over the Legislature and gave him the power to dismiss the contractors and George Mann (inspections in 1905, 1906, 1907 and 1909 by prominent firms showed the building was sound although some damage had come from exposure to the elements during long breaks in construction). Donaghey hired architect Cass Gilbert and the Pittsburgh firm of William Miller & Sons to finish the Capitol. With cost over-runs, Donaghey narrowly won reelection in March of 1910. The Capitol dome was christened on December 11, 1910. In 1912, with the Capitol still unfinished and his popularity sagging, Donaghey lost his bid for a third-term as governor to Rep. Joseph T. Robinson. Donaghey managed a return to the Capitol Commission by a bizarre set of political circumstances. Jeff Davis, now a U.S. Senator, died suddenly in January 1913. The Legislature appointed the yet to be inaugurated Governor Robinson to the open Senate seat and the acting governor appointed Donaghey back on the Capitol Commission. Donaghey, thus, was able to wield influence as the building was completed in 1916.

In 1937 Donaghey published Building a State Capitol. Historian John Treon stated, in 1972, “his account of the project bears the mark of impassioned participant, who wrote to trumpet his own accomplishments as an engineer-politician and to hog credit for the completion of the great public work.” Donaghey’s account re-opened old wounds with at least one participant–architect George Mann.

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll look at Arkansas’s Capitol Commission’s visit to the Mississippi in May 1903.

—————————————-

References

  • Arkansas Secretary of State’s Office, Virtual Capitol Tour
  • Donaghey, George W. Building a State Capitol. Little Rock: Parke-Harper, 1937.
  • Donaghey, George W. “A Message to the People from George W. Donaghey” [1910] in Arkansas History Commission and Arkansas Secretary of State’s Office.
  • Hitchcock, Henry Russell and William Seale. Temples of Democracy: The State Capitols of the U.S.A. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.
  • Mann, George R. “Appendix: George R. Mann’s Comments on George W. Donaghey’s “Building a State Capitol” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 31 (1972): 134-149 [Typed original now located in the J.N. Heiskell Collection, UALR Archives at the Arkansas Studies Institute, and Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries].
  • Roy, F. Hampton, Sr., Charles Witsell, Jr. and Cheryl Griffith Nichols. How We Lived: Little Rock as an American City. Revised ed., Little Rock: August House, 1985.
  • Treon, John. “Politics and Concrete: The Building of the Arkansas State Capitol, 1899-1917,” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 31 (Summer 1972): 99-133.
  • Treon, John. “The Building of the Arkansas State Capitol, 1899-1915,” (Unpublished Master’s Thesis, University of Arkansas, 1964).
  • Ware, David. “Arkansas State Capitol Building” in Arkansas Encyclopedia of History & Culture
  • Whitsell, Charles Jr. “George R. Mann (1856-1939)” in Arkansas Encyclopedia of History & Culture
  • Yankopolus, Jennifer Evans. Almanac of Architecture & Design, 2006. Atlanta, GA: Green Group, 2006.

—————————————

Blake Wintory is a lifelong Arkansan now living in the southeast Arkansas Delta near Greenville, Mississippi. He is the on-site director at the Lakeport Plantation Museum, a restored 1859 antebellum plantation home along the Mississippi River and an Arkansas State University Heritage Site.  He is on the board of the Arkansas Historical Association and has published articles on Arkansas’s African American history in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly and the Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies.  He is currently researching architectural connections between Lakeport and other family homes in Washington County, Mississippi.


Categories: Architectural Research, Cool Old Places, Jackson

7 replies

  1. Wow I can’t wait to read more! Poor Gov. Davis trying to steal the plans. Bless his heart.

    Like

  2. A good read, and a handy introduction to a complex and (in hindsight, at least) frequently amusing story–thanks for having pursued this! Concerning the large rendering, I’d suggest that rather than representing the Arkansas capitol as planned, it may in fact be a preliminary version, one created in order to attract comment and, possibly, a contract. It puts a St. Peter’s-style portholed dome atop a St-Paul’s-style colonnaded drum, albeit with the columns gathered into two-column courses. This design is not characteristic of Mann’s later drawings for the dome (represented in the post-card view), which makes me think that this was meant to be a “spec” drawing—one which, along with the drawings and plans for the Montana capitol that were displayed in the halls of the State House, was meant to hook the unsuspecting trout—er, legislators.

    Like

  3. I love it when great buildings have such interesting & complex histories to explore – esp. when trying to sort out truth from “myth.” This is going to be a fun series this week!

    Like

Trackbacks

  1. A Rosetta Stone and Truth about the Dome? « Preservation in Mississippi

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 626 other followers

%d bloggers like this: