Critiquing the New Capitol Designs (1900)–Part 2

Second in our series of transcripts from the State House Commission’s minutes of 1900, in which Washington DC expert Bernard Green examines the 14 proposed designs for the New Capitol and lends his experience to the Commission.

Today Green gets down to brass tacks about the proposals, weeding out the non-starters immediately (those that have–my favorite quote from yesterday–“rattling unrestful sky lines”) and getting straight to the three he thinks have the most chance of success. He follows his two main guidelines, as noted yesterday: “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.”

Unfortunately, since Green was working on blind copies, where he didn’t know the name attached to each proposal, we don’t know for sure which three designs he’s referring to here. Because Theodore Link was eventually chosen, and because we have Link’s original design, we know that Link was Design No. 5, but so far, it’s a mystery who Nos. 8 and 13 were. Someday, the Rosetta Stone matching numbers with names will appear and all the mysteries of the world will be solved!

I hope you all enjoy seeing Link’s original proposal, complete with campanile–can you imagine?

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As to the probable cost of executing their designs it is fully evident to me that none of Nos. 2, 4, 8, 12, 13, or 14 could be consistently constructed for the sums stated by their authors. This is of small importance, however, although as far as it goes, unfavorable to the judgement of the authors and their own presentation of their schemes.

Design No. 5

As to the comparative ability of the architects I regard the author of Design No. 5 as distinctly superior to all the rest although his plans are rather general and incomplete. His scheme, however, embodies nearly all of the desirable points that I have indicated above, except as to the campanile, or bell tower, which is not a necessity to his design although quite an original feature and very graceful in itself. The Legislative halls are admirably placed on the same floor–well separated and at the same time in easy communication with each other when necessary. The principal Committee rooms of the two houses are also on the same floor convenient to each other while well separated. The Chief Executive, or Governor’s, offices are located handsomely and quietly in the center pavilion just off the rotunda, while the Supreme Court is on the floor below, occupying the pavilion beneath the Senate Chamber, well and quietly separated from the Legislative neighborhood, as it should be.

Link’s 1900 competition proposal. Image courtesy St. Louis Public Library, Special Collections

The Library, which is very large and needs ample accommodations, is symmetrically located at the opposite end of the same floor. All rooms through the building are well lighted by outside windows, and very little skylight or floor light will be needed other than the proper dome illumination of the legislative halls. The rotunda is simple, broad and effective, and distinctly the natural center of departure for all parts of the building as it should be–connecting therewith by direct and handsome corridors which give fine vistas through the building. Private corridors to Committee rooms have been thoughtfully provided. On the whole the design presents the true triple scheme for a Capitol building, with the Senate and House at either end and the executive in the center. The Seating of the Legislative halls places the backs of the members towards the windows, although the latter are not large, and dome light will be chiefly depended on as it should be. Thus, outside windows are secured without being too evident, or objectionable.

This design should, however, be extensively re-studied. The campanile should be omitted and its cost and space otherwise utilized. The middle building might perhaps be extended somewhat as a wing to give more space and provide at the same time the rear entrance. Minor entrances and stairs might well be provided for the ends of the building. A lightwell or floor lights would be good in the rotunda floor, 2nd story, to light the Memorial Hall, — and similar lights would be well in the 2nd story corridor floors, while a flood of light could be brought in through the dome drum and the roofs over the corridors. More rooms may be practicable near the lobbies in rear of the desks of the legislative halls. The building should be enlarged somewhat and made higher to give good office rooms in the basement. A basement entrance should be had by a porte cochere under the front steps.

Design No. 8

This design shows originality and ingenuity next in order to that of No. 5, although materially inferior to it. There is much waste space in the basement and the arrangement of rooms is not convenient nor economical, while the three-section plans makes the building bulky and expensive. The exterior design is by far the chief merit, while the interior is quite without dignity, and, if employed, the architect would have to start on a quite different plan. The ornamental detail of the exterior lacks the strength required for a monumental building. The domes are weak and thin in appearance.

Design No. 13

The merit of this design is chiefly in its exterior, although rather heavy, — but this may be classed as a “good fault.” The interior lacks dignity and economy of space and is generally uninteresting, while the arrangement of spaces is mechanically planned and gives no impression of the superior importance of the building and its purposes. The Supreme Court is on the same floor with the Legislature and the halls of the latter are square and hard in their outlines and treatment, while the visitor’s galleries overhang the members seats. If the author could start out on a different theory of the interior, — more in the line with my suggestions above, — he might prove to be a desirable architect for the commission to appoint. His general conception of the building is good.

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Of the remaining designs there is little to be said. Some are very crude and all embody more or less of the faults that I have referred to. — No. 10 might be built cheaper in proportion to bulk and would be one of the best lighted, but all at the sacrifice of heavy walls and monumental design, and of the proper character of a Capitol either interior or exterior. The peculiar scheme of oval halls, cutting each wing in to and requiring separate stairways, Etc., breaks up harmony of design and convenience, while the disposition to cover the building and dome with useless architectural embellishments is wasteful.

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To secure an architect from the competition the Commission should, in my judgement, first determine whether the author of design No. 5 possesses the requisite personal and business qualifications, as well as the professional, indicated by his design. If so, he should be appointed with the understanding that he shall enter de nero, with the Commission, on the preparation of a complete design with drawings and specifications satisfactory to the Commission, for a building that can positively be erected at the cost previously determined on, to the end that thereafter a contract may be let accordingly and the work properly carried through. Should the Commission be indisposed to place itself in the hands of this architect they would do well to pursue a similar course of inquiry regarding successively the authors of Design Nos. 8 and 13. Failing in this, I would not advise further consideration of any of the other architects but would rather proceed independently of the present competition to secure one. When the architect is secured and the drawings and specifications for the entire building with all its apparatus and fixtures, excepting the movable furniture, property prepared by and under his direction, it will be bet to let the whole work, through competition, to a thoroughly competent, equipped and reliable contractor, and place in charge of the work constantly, from beginning to end, a competent superintendent acting for the Commission and incidentally for the architect, as “Clerk of the Works.” Such a course, carefully, intelligently and fairly pursued will safely guard all the interests of the Commission and the State and prove creditable and satisfactory in every way. As the funds are somewhat limited for a building of the necessary size I advise the use of first class limestone in the exterior walls, especially for the superstructure. I would also suggest that the heating and power house be placed outside the building in a  lower corner of the grounds with underground connections into the cellar or basement of the Capitol. Thus dirt, soot and chimney would be avoided in the building and valuable space saved at but little additional cost because the boiler and power house could be partly sunk in the ground. The ample size of the grounds and their slope to the Westward are favorable to this arrangement.

I have the honor to be

Very respectfully yours

Bernard R. Green

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This post is second in the series. Read more?



Categories: Architectural Research, Jackson

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