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.
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 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.
- Arkansas Gazette, December 8, 1909.
- Donaghey, George W. Building a State Capitol. Little Rock: Parke-Harper Company, 1937.
- Donaghey, George W. “Donaghey Reiterates Charges Against Capitol Contractors” [undated, ca. 1907] in Arkansas History Commission.
- 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].
- Report of the Board of State Capitol Commissioners for the Year 1906, in Arkansas History Commission.
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