A Tale of Two Domes, Part II

We’re on the 2nd day of a 4-part adventure into the ins-and-outs of the Arkansas Capitol project, courtesy of guest author Blake Wintory, in order to gauge the veracity of the claim that the dome on Arkansas’ Capitol is in fact a twin of the Mississippi dome. This series is shaping up as a blockbuster here on MissPres, and I hope will inspire someone in Mississippi to look more closely at how our own Capitol came to have the beautiful dome it does.

If you’re just joining us, make sure to read the first part of this story.

The official version of the building of Mississippi’s New Capitol never so much as mentions Arkansas, and you can read that four-part series as background research for this series:

As you read this report, you will no doubt notice how our own Capitol project was a model of efficiency and competence, in contrast to the Arkansas project, which sounds like it was a 16-year snake pit. Isn’t it fun being better than a neighboring state for once? And if I might say so, I think we emerged with the better Capitol too.

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“I made the the mistake of assuming that the Commissioners of the Arkansas Building had the same point of view that I did, and would follow Mississippi’s good example.”

—George W. Donaghey in Building a State Capitol (1937)

In the spring of 1903 the Mississippi Capitol neared completion, while Arkansas’s lagged behind. The Arkansas Capitol Commission scheduled a trip to Jackson to “obtain all the information that in their judgment would be of value in the prosecution of our work.” The minutes of Arkansas’s Capitol Commission reflect admiration for the Mississippi project and a desire to learn from their example.

Minutes of the Arkansas Capitol Commission
May 15, 1903

The following resolution offered by Mr. McFarlane was adopted:

Whereas the state of Mississippi has first completed a magnificent and costly state House and that it is the opinion of this board that much valuable information might be gained by an examination of the plans, specifications, contracts, and buildings, etc of said state Capitol.

Therefore be it resolved that a committee of this board to visit: Jno B. McCaleb, Z. T. Matthews and R. W. McFarlane be instructed to visit said state Capitol and obtain all the information that in their judgment would be of value in the prosecution of our work, and that said committee make report at the next regular meeting.

June 10, 1903
Your committee heretofore appointed to visit and examine the Mississippi State Capitol Buildings [sic] begs leave to report that they did so immediately after the adjournment of the last meeting. We found the building nearly completed. It has since been dedicated June 3rd 1903. It is built on the site formerly occupied by their penitentiary, a plot of ground of eleven acres.

The first contract price was $833,000 but an additional appropriation of $30,261 [$390,000 crossed out] was made for excavation. The building completed will have cost $1,100,000, and it will take at least another $100,000 to level up the ground and furnish the building.

It is a beautiful structure, the basement story of granite, and the superstructure brick and faced with Bedford stone, faced inside on second and third story with Italian Marble and finished in scagliola.

The general plan of the building is the same as ours, but it is smaller and has not the massive appearance.

We saw their contracts, expense accounts plans and specifications and gained much valuable information that will be of great value to us as our building progresses and we also file copy of report of their commission to last legislature.
They told us the trial and triumph in building their house. We were courteously treated by the officer in charge, Hon F. H. Thompson and we come away believing that our plan can be executed within our appropriation, and that we can make its execution a success.

Committee –

J. B. McCaleb
Z. T. Matthews
R.W. McFarlane

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

Also invited on the journey from Little Rock to Jackson was George W. Donaghey, a former commissioner, future governor, and a favorite of the commissioners to be the contractor for the Capitol. In his Building a State Capitol (1937), Donaghey recounts the minutes of the commissioners’ report and delves into the issue of “native materials” in the construction of the Capitol:

State pride…prompted many influential citizens to advocate the use of this home material. It was always spoken of as “Arkansas Marble,” and in every instance its beauty was remarked upon. But while we were at Jackson, Mississippi…we had discussed the subject of stone at considerable length with the Mississippi officers. What was there said gave me the impression that the Arkansas committee had come to the conclusion that the development of an Arkansas marble quarry would take too long and that its use would prove too costly. I was therefore, under the impression that when the bids were made they were going to adopt the Bedford stone for us on the outside facing of the upper stores of the Capitol, and Arkansas granite for the facing of the Basement story (pg. 106).

At Jackson, Mississippi, the Arkansas Committee had been informed that a stone contractor by the name of George Dugan was responsible for having the Bedford stone quarried, cut, molded and laid into the walls of the Mississippi Capitol within a little less than twelve months time. Such speed was in keeping with modern enterprise, and I was tremendously impressed. Personally, I was so enthusiastic over the encouraging reports on this stone, that I made the mistake of assuming the Commissioners of the Arkansas building had the same point of view that I did, and would follow Mississippi’s good example. (pg. 107)

Donaghey’s lower bid was rejected. The “native materials” clause in the legislation and state pride over-ruled “Mississippi’s good example.” The firm of Caldwell & Drake of Columbus, Indiana was chosen to construct the Capitol. Quarrying the harder “Arkansas marble” caused many delays and cost over-runs.

In the next post, I’ll look at the debate over the Arkansas dome including Theodore Link’s advice to Arkansas officials.

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References

  • Donaghey, George W. Building a State Capitol. Little Rock: Parke-Harper Company, 1937.
  • Minutes of the Capitol Commission, Capitol Commission Reports Collection, Arkansas History Commission.

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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, Jackson

7 replies

  1. I think Mississippi is lucky that none of its local building firms put in bids, even though we did have a couple who were just large enough to maybe consider it. That saved us from this constant bickering by the locals who got left out.

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  2. Mann defended the use of the “Arkansas marble” / “Batesville [AR] limestone” in his 1937 letter, calling it “the finest building stone in America.” His greatest objection to the Bedford Stone, the stone used on the Mississippi Capitol and later on the Arkansas dome, was “its absorbent qualities.” This quality was less of a problem in 1937 because of the use of natural gas had minimized coal and coal smoke. As examples, he described discoloration of the Post Office building in St. Joseph, Missouri (a building he worked on) and the Donaghey Building in Little Rock.

    Did the Mississippi Capitol have ever have problems with looking dirty?

    I’ve visited both capitols and, to me, the Arkansas Capitol looks a little brighter. The Arkansas dome has had to be cleaned several times due to damage from a 1940s sandblasting job. In 2006 big money was spent removing algae among other repairs.

    The strangest story is in 1985 when NBC used the dome as a stand-in for the National Capitol in the tv movie “Under Siege.” The movie stared Brian Bosworth as an undercover policeman who thwarts a plan by a motorcycle gang to overthrow the Government and assassinate Mississippi’s Governor (I don’t know how those two are connected). A planned explosion next to the dome left black soot on the dome that was apparently cleaned up soon afterwards. However, many thought the 2006 clean up was a result of the pyrotechnics. In another example of Mississippi’s “good example,” Mississippi officials decided to not let the movie be filmed at their Capitol.

    see John Brummett, “Lights, camera, stupidity,” Arkansas Gazette, August 11, 1990.

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    • Oops I got two movies confused….Bosworth was in Stone Cold (1990) not the 1985 film;; but both were filmed at the AR Capitol. The columnist, Brummett, maybe it’s not a good idea to do another movie at the Capitol considering the soot on the dome last time and the inane plot in the second movie.

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    • Over throw the Federal Government and Assassinate the Mississippi Governor?! Mississippi must be pretty important! Ill have to hunt that film down. This story keeps getting better and better.

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    • Mississippi’s objection probably came from our deeply held belief that Brian Bosworth’s attempt at acting would embarrass our Capitol–nothing to do with the possible blowing up of the building.

      The plot is intriguing though, and does play to our innate sense of greatness :-)

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