A Tale of Two Domes, Part III

Today marks the third in this week’s four-part examination by guest author Blake Wintory of the strange and twisted tale of how the Mississippi and Arkansas Capitol domes came to look so similar. If you missed the last two days, check out Part 1 and Part 2 before diving into today’s post.

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The dome is the keynote to this very fine architectural composition and it demands the use of a material which will enhance rather than diminish its noble proportions.

—Theodore Link, Report Submitted to the Arkansas Capitol Commission, 1906

George Mann’s original dome plan, 1900. Courtesy of the Arkansas Secretary of State’s Office.

George Mann’s original design for the Arkansas Capitol called for a metal St. Peter’s style dome. A brochure available in the Capitol today describes the original dome as “echo[ing] baroque European models in its ribbed metal covering, ornate gables, portholes windows and detailed carving at the base of the drum.” After Mann was dismissed in 1909, his design was replaced with a stone dome that resembles the Mississippi Capitol’s dome, influenced more by London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. Mann continued to prefer his original design late in his life. Writing in 1937, he stated, “I think now, as I did when I designed the building, that the St. Peter’s arrangement is preferable…This building is a long, low building and the much heavier appearance of the St. Peter’s dome is much better suited to the Capitol building.” Mann further maintained, “there was never any intention of building the dome of any material other than stone.”

While Mann recalled that the dome had been designed to be made of stone, his concept was altered due to financial considerations to a metal dome, according to Donaghey. In 1906, however both Theodore C. Link, Mississippi’s Capitol architect who was then building Little Rock’s Union Station, and Philadelphia architect Frank Miles Day, consulted on the project and advised against a metal dome.

Report of the Board of State Capitol Commissioners For the Year 1906

Philadelphia Architect Frank Miles Day:
I wish to note a special exception in the case of the main dome of the building. This is specified to be entirely of cast-iron, and in spite of the employment of this material in the construction of at least one well known dome (where its use has been deplored by all judicious observers), it would appear to me that unless the State of Arkansas is presently prepared to pay for something better than a cast-iron imitation of a stone dome, it had better postpone the construction of the dome until such time as its funds permit the use of a more satisfactory material than that proposed. The dome would unquestionably be constructed of stone and of the same stone as the body of the building (pg. 17).

St. Louis Architect Theodore C. Link:
I refer practically to the main dome, which is to be made of sheet copper and attached to a frame work of steel, and I fully agree with Mr. Day, who in a previous report to your Commission, says it will be an unpardonable blemish if completed in this manner. The dome is the keynote to this very fine architectural composition and it demands the use of a material which will enhance rather than diminish its noble proportions. Copper will belittle it. As an example, take the copper dome on the Kansas City Federal Building, which had to be covered with gold leaf in a vain attempt to redeem its shrinking dimensions. In my judgment it will be better to leave the dome off entirely for a while, if necessary, rather than hammer it out of sheet copper (pg. 61).

The critique of the dome from architects Link and Day gave the Legislature pause in 1907 over the material for the dome. Donaghey told the legislature, “Now if copper is good enough for the Dome of the Congressional Library and the Dome of our National Capitol…it certainly ought to be good enough for the Arkansas Capitol Dome.” However, he warned, “Copper is worth twice as much now as it was worth when the contract for the capitol was let.” Thus, he reasoned, using copper would result in $75,000 more profit for the corrupt contractors. In 1909 the Legislature approved spending for a stone dome.

On December 7, 1909, Gov. Donaghey and Cass Gilbert, the new architect, announced to the press: “the entire dome will be constructed of stone in great contrast to the original plans…which provided sheet metal.” The softer Bedford stone, the material used on the Mississippi Capitol, was chosen over the harder “Arkansas marble.”

In our final post, I’ll look closer at Mann’s claims, their plausibility, and the historians that have relied on them.

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References

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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

5 replies

  1. Here is a footnote to Donaghey’s praise of Link…It wasn’t all praise:

    From George W. Donaghey, “A Review of the Errors of Construction and Bad Management of the Arkansas State Capitol.” Addressed to the Thirty-Sixth General Assembly [1907] in UALR Archives

    Mr. Theodore C. Link’s Estimate and Recommendation for an Appropriation of Another Million Dollars–Heaven Help Us

    It would appear from the way this architect is being worked in that in case of Mr. Mann’s inability to feed out of our treasury for another two years, Mr. Link is being groomed to carry out the job stared by Mr. Mann.
    This would work in harmony with Mr. Link’s duties at the present time, he having in charge the construction of the new Union Depot, now being erected near the Capitol Building. And Mr. Link would, of course, rather have a million or so to whittle on for the next two years than not.
    The State Capitol Commissioners introduce Mr. Link along by the side of Mr. Day, to you, as two of “America’s greatest architects.”
    In standing Mr. Link up before you they give you a brief mention of some of his work, naming the “beautiful” Union Depot at St. Louis, some of the World’s Fair buildings and the new State Capitol of Mississippi.
    There is nothing wrong with the depot at St. Louis. Its cost when constructed was given at about $100,000.00, and my recollection is that at that time Mr. Link was accused of unprofessional methods in obtaining this contract by the architectural journals of the country, in cutting the fees adopted by the American Institute of Architects. I wonder how he stands now on that score.
    As for the World’s Fair buildings, designed by Mr. Link, or any other architect, they have all been consigned to scrap heap long since, except the Art Museum, which was designed by Mr. Cass Gilbert, which remains on the ground, a permanent structure.
    The Mississippi State Capitol, then, is Mr. Link’s best building, accoring to the commission’s statement, and I think this is correct.
    That building is truly a magnificent and imposing structure. I have a copy of Mr. Link’s contract items for that structure at the time it was erected. These items are correct. They were obtained from the Mississippi Commission about the time of the completion of that structure…

    Mr. Link never got, nor did he ask for, any additional appropriation. Why, then does he now think that we should be so lavish in shoveling out our money. The Mississippi Capitol is nearly or quite as large as ours; it has a stone dome, and the basement, excavation and all else, is included in this price.

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  2. Gov. Donaghey sounds like a nasty piece of work.

    As for World’s Fair buildings, they’re almost always built as temporary low-cost structures, little more plaster over a wood frame, so that’s a red-herring.

    Theodore, you’re still my favorite, man!

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    • A nasty piece of work? Maybe not, but he was prickly and dead stubborn and in spite of having little formal education was a master (perhaps unconsciously so) of the technique of slamming his opponents and competitors while seeming to strive for absolute fairness and objectivity. Construction reports sent to Cass Gilbert by his agent in Little Rock during the latter phase of construction suggest that Donaghey was a bit of a pill.

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      • I define “nasty piece of work” as someone who feels the need to call a person’s character into question solely for his own ends, and that’s what Donaghey is doing here. If he was upset about cost overruns, that’s something he could have addressed without disparaging Link’s work and reputation. The fact that this was apparently a pattern for Donaghey further defines him as a nasty piece of work in my book. No offense to Arkansas, Mississippi has had a number of governors who easily fit the same bill.

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