History of Art in Mississippi: Seats of Government

Today we continue with our trek through the chapter on “Architecture in Public Buildings” from the 1929 book History of Art in Mississippi. As we’ve noted before, this book was the result of a highly collaborative effort, mostly by women in the various art associations in the state. Since the most active association was in Jackson, they do tend to spend more time on the capital city than on other places, but after today, we move out into the provinces.

As in previous Book Quotes, most particularly the WPA Guide, the racism of the times comes through loud and clear in places, but unlike that book, the history of women’s rights and of public contracts also appears here. So as usual, history and the people who occupy it are more complex than we usually remember in the textbooks.

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City Hall of Jackson

photo by Elisaeus von Seutter, via MDAH, date unknown

The building now used as a city hall in Jackson, was built in 1848 for a court house, and while not of the classic proportions to make it an outstanding structure from the artistic standpoint, it has quite a beautiful and imposing facade and is built with a noteworthy honesty and thouroughness [sic] of construction. It was designed and built by a Mr. Patrick, all of the carpentry work having been done by hand. With very few repairs it has outlasted many public buildings put up since its erection, and stands today as useful and substantial as ever.[1]

Four large columns of Greek Doric type support the lovely portico on the front and today, in 1929, the back is being remodeled to match the front. This is made possible by the fact that the court house is situated on an end lot and has large enough grounds to give full value to its stately presence. And these grounds are made lovely by formal planning.

The Old State Capitol

Old Mississippi State Capitol, Jackson, 1930s operating as a state office building (via MDAH)

The old State Capitol, at Jackson, is another stately and beautiful old building. Though replaced in 1903 by the New Capitol, a much larger and more imposing structure, it still stands at the head of Capitol Street–a memorial to the long years during which it occupied the most important place in the state’s history, and to the memory of the many glorious and often trying events, that occurred within its walls.

In 1833, by an act of legislature, an appropriation of $95,000 was made for this, the second state house–to replace the small brick building then in use. Finally in 1839 work on it was completed, and, though not entirely finished on the interior, the state officers took possession. Gov. Runnels was in office and had pushed the work to completion. Beginning at first for a time with John Lawrence of Nashville as state architect, the building was really done under the supervision of William Nichols who soon became the architect for it and practically planned and completed the present building.

The classical old ante-bellum Capitol has had much to transpire within its walls, and has had many famous visitors. Its corridors echoes to the tread of Andrew Jackson in eighteen-forty, and four years later resounded to the idealism of the great Clay. There were heard the noble and patriotic words of Jefferson Davis, and the inspired speech of the Hungarian patriot, Kossuth. Its walls have quivered at the sound of victorious federal foes, as they invaded its sacred precincts and plundered and scattered its records. And afterwards came those years of ignominy, during which the brave Mississippi governor, Charles Scott, tried to stem the tide of national injustice and corruption, but was torn away and imprisoned in Fort Pulaski. Then in 1877, the joyous time, when the state legislative control came back once more into the hands of the native whites.

The old Capitol has meant much also to the womanhood of the state and of the nation. There, a sweet and modest woman, Winnie Davis, Daughter of the Confederacy, received a tremendous ovation. And there was enacted the first law in the United States giving state support to an institution for the higher education of women–the Mississippi Industrial Institute and College for Women–also the first state law giving equal property rights to women.

So it was only fitting that, with all its glorious history of nearly a century, the majestic old building should not be abandoned utterly to oblivion and decay, but by an act of the legislature of 1916, be preserved as an enduring monument of the historic past of the Government of the state of Mississippi.

The New State Capitol

Mississippi’s Capitol, at the time of its completion in 1903, was said to be, architecturally, the most important and the most prominent building in the South. The style of architecture is of a pure Renaissance classic, with a dignity and elegance of proportion that fittingly expresses the power, honor and stability of the state.

In length it is 402 feet from east to west with a width, through the center pavilion of 225 feet, and has a central dome that rises 180 feet above the grade lines established at the main entrance. The building is designed on the order of pavilions connected by wings, with a view to giving architectural expression and prominence to its fundamental purpose of accommodating the Legislative, Executive and Judicial branches of the government. These pavilions are provided with porticos and arcades, which add much beauty to the structure. The entire building is fire-proof in construction and thoroughly modern in all its equipment.

All exterior walls are of Bedford limestone with bases of Georgia granite, and the main vestibule is built entirely of blue Vermont marble on a base of black Belgian marble. The central rotunda is of Italian marble with trimmings of jet black marble from New York state, and friezes and columns of scagliola leading the eye to a dome of pure white in stucco work. This dome is supported at four points on massive piers, with rich marble niches designated as receptacles for statuary, which develop into massive, free columns in the second story, up to the frieze line of the dome. The legislative halls are located in the two extreme points of the second story and are built of marble and scagliola, both with rich, domed ceilings of oxidized copper, stucco and stained glass.

The architect who designed the state house was Theodore C. Link of St. Louis, and the building was begun January 1, 1901 and completed August 20, 1903.

There is $101,000 worth of genuine marble in the building and $36,000 worth of scagliola. The most expensive marble is to be found in the Governor’s reception room, the Numidian marble. It is a fact of which Mississippians are justly proud, that the appropriation of $1,000,000 was so faithfully and honestly administered that the beautiful structure was entirely completed within the specified sum, and out of the current funds of the treasury. This marks, it is believed, an epoch, not only in the history of Mississippi, but also in the history of public contracts in America.

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Back to post 1 Since 1929, further research into the history of the City Hall has shown that while the building was begun in 1846, it developed structural problems and had to be rebuilt, possibly from the ground up in 1853, under the direction of Jackson architect Joseph Willis, who also was responsible for the Madison County Courthouse and the renovation of the Old Capitol that produced the current arcaded base under the portico (the original flat-arched base can be seen in this early rendering.) I’m not sure who the Mr. Patrick is referred to in History of Art–maybe someone out there who knows more about the history of the City Hall can verify where or if he fits into the picture.

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This is the third in a series of excerpts from the 1929 book The History of Art in Mississippi. Want to read more?



Categories: Antebellum, Cool Old Places, Historic Preservation, Jackson

4 replies

  1. Interesting reading. I had to look up what “scagliola” is and now I know a bit more about the construction materials of large buildings.

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  2. That’s great you’ve done your own research! I should have linked that word to its definition somewhere. If I’m not mistaken, in the last picture, the columns in the foreground are scagliola.

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  3. This has been interesting reading the past couple of days, but today I was struck by the picture of the Old Capitol you included.

    Did anyone else notice the awnings over some of the windows?

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  4. Good eye, JR, I hadn’t noticed those! As one with an awning on my porch, albeit a metal one from the 1950s, I can attest to the value of awnings on the western elevation in Mississippi, especially without air conditioning.

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