A Tale of Two Domes, Finale

Today, guest author Blake Wintory concludes his fascinating examination of the two similar domes atop the Mississippi and Arkansas capitol buildings. If you are just joining us, jump back to the beginning and read from the beginning because it’s a good ol’ convoluted Southern story and well worth your time!

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Mississippi State Capitol Dome (left), 1900-1903; Arkansas State Capitol Dome (right), 1900-1916

There are two great domes in the world: St. Peter’s at Rome and St. Paul’s in London, from which all modern domes are an adaptation.  The main difference between the two domes is that Michelangelo, the architect of St. Peter’s, placed the columns and pilasters in groups of four, located sixteen points around the drum of the dome.  This is the way I had designed my dome, on the lines of St. Peter’s.  Sir Christopher Wren, the architect of St. Paul’s changed the columns into a continuous colonnade around the drum of the dome.  I think now, as I did when I designed the building, that the St. Peter’s arrangement is preferable to the St. Paul’s arrangement for our Capitol.  This building is a long, low building and the much heavier appearance of the St. Peter’s dome I think was better suited to the Capitol building.  Mr. Gilbert was not the designer of the present dome.  It is a direct copy of the dome on the new Mississippi Capitol. Shortly after the Mississippi Capitol was built, Mr. Donaghey visited the building and came back delighted with the dome and had Architect Gilbert copy it in building our Capitol dome.  This Mississippi Capitol dome has a curious history.  I was one of the competitors for the Mississippi Capitol but the Board selected the plans of Theodore Link of St. Louis.  Externally, he had a campanile or bell tower about three hundred feet high at one end of the building, but had no dome.  Shortly after the competition was decided I received a letter from Mr. Link, who was a warm personal friend, stating the Capitol Commission of Mississippi, in selecting his plan, had made it a condition that he eliminate the campanile and place a dome like the one I had on my design on the building.  Courteously, he asked me if i had any objections to his using this design.  Of course I told him I would be glad to have him use it and sent him the design of the dome I had on my drawings, and that was the way it was built.  

— George R. Mann, September 30, 1937

The design and construction of the Arkansas Capitol is a complicated web spanning parts of three decades, six governors, four Capitol Commissions, two contractors, and two architects.  Unfortunately, no real history of its construction came until 1937 when two conflicting personal accounts were written:  former Governor and Capitol Commissioner George W. Donaghey’s Building a State Capitol and architect George R. Mann’s private letter to his family.  The first academic histories of the Arkansas Capitol came from John Treon in a 1964 master’s thesis and later in a 1972 article in The Arkansas Historical Quarterly. More recently, political scientist Cal Ledbetter covered the building of the Capitol in his 2001 biography of Donaghey years as governor. While Donaghey claimed his history was “facts…without the distortion of political or partisan influence,” Treon stated that “at best the book disguises his sometimes dubious role in the project; at worst, it is a collection of unrelated and unsubstantiated facts” (1972: 99-100).

George Mann’s own account, albeit much shorter, is a rebuttal of Donaghey, point by point on many topics:  a defense of Arkansas marble, attribution of the interior architecture, the dome, integrity of the building, fees of the architect, and many other charges.   Intended for his family, George Mann left the letter unpublished, trusting they would “hand it down and keep it safe until such time when some historian, who is bound to come, writes a history of Arkansas.”  Treon found Mann’s letter in the possession of Mann’s son-in-law, J.N. Heiskell (editor of the Arkansas Gazette from 1902-1972).  Treon never directly questions the accuracy of Mann’s letter and presumably, found no fault with other parts of the account when comparing it to other records.  He concludes Mann and the contractors were “made scapegoats for much that was not their fault” (1972: 133).

However, George Mann’s ironic history of the Arkansas and Mississippi domes sticks out from the rest of his account and is difficult to substantiate with other documents.  Treon, even if Mann’s story of the domes is true, was in error swallowing it whole without looking for confirmation in other sources.  Still, many of the circumstances Mann outlines do add up.  Link and Mann, both turn of the century architects in St. Louis, likely knew each other, making it plausible for Link to borrow Mann’s dome design.  It is also well-known as Mann states that the Mississippi Capitol Commission requested changes to Link’s plans.

Theodore Link's original presentation drawing for the New Mississippi State House (1901)

Mann’s memory (three decades old) of Link’s original design is partially right, when he stated, “Externally, he had a campanile or bell tower about three hundred feet high at one end of the building, but had no dome.”  From the image of Link’s original design now at the St. Louis Public Library, we do see an external campanile at the center; however there is a stylized, low-centered dome.  Whether the Mississippi Commission asked for a dome like Mann’s is not recorded and Mann’s original Mississippi submission is not known to have survived in any archive.  Finally, Donaghey did admire the Mississippi project and visited the Mississippi Capitol at least once in 1903 with the Arkansas Capitol Commissioners.  In a pamphlet published in 1907, following Link’s Arkansas testimony, Donaghey stated, “The Mississippi State Capitol…is Mr. Link’s best building…That building is truly a magnificent and imposing structure.”

Donaghey, despite his praise for Mississippi and its new Capitol, does not mention the Mississippi dome in his Building a State Capitol or in any of his pamphlets that I have seen.  In the book he is completely focused on the issue of Bedford stone vs Arkansas marble.  Link’s records on the dome’s origin are silent as far as I know.  Cass Gilbert is another potential source of information on the dome.  However, academic studies of Gilbert’s work pay little attention to the Arkansas project.  The Arkansas Secretary of State’s office does have files from the Cass Gilbert Collection at the New York Historical Society.  Most of the files are dailies and say nothing about the design of the dome.  The Arkansas History Commission, the repository for the Arkansas Capitol Commission Reports, has misplaced several of the reports that Treon looked at in the 1960s.  Also, I have not consulted Donaghey’s papers at the University of Arkansas; although Donaghey’s biographer told me he was unaware “of any sources” besides Mann.

Finally, in Mann’s limited records there are no drawings of St. Paul’s style domes.

Arkansas historians aren’t much help sorting this out either.  Arkansas historians have relished the irony of the self-serving Governor Donaghey unknowingly borrowing a design of the architect that he had opposed from the beginning, ultimately dismissed, and slandered.  Their confidence in Mann is, no doubt, buoyed by Mann’s subsequent career in Arkansas, which has contributed over twelve buildings to the National Register.  Treon, it seems, even muddied the historical record by embellishing Mann’s account in the 1972 article, claiming that Mann had announced his ownership of the dome as early as 1910: “the moment the dome was completed, Mann released to the press its documented history, much to the embarrassment of Donaghey.”  This diverges from his 1964 thesis which only mentions Mann’s 1937 letter and doesn’t mention a dramatic 1910 press release; if Mann had publicly claimed credit for the Mississippi dome in 1910, Theodore Link, who died in 1923, might have been able to verify or refute the is statement.  An examination of Treon’s 1972 and 1964 sources does not support the claim of an earlier public statement.  Mann makes it clear in his 1937 letter that his story had never been public:

I am writing it [this letter] for the benefit of my children, grandchildren, and their descendants, and I trust they will hand it down and keep it safe until such time when some historian, who is bound to come, writes a history of Arkansas. He will go to the library for information, and will read Mr. Donaghey’s book, and I want you to give him this letter so that he can consider it in connection with Mr. Donaghey’s statements.

Private, end of life accounts written for family are unlikely places to examine one’s faults; in that sense Mann’s 1937 letter to his children is “self-serving.”  The same tone is found in an earlier autobiographical letter to his family dated October 6, 1932, where he claimed Cass Gilbert had stolen his floorplan for the Minnesota State Capitol from an earlier competition. Mann obviously feeling wronged by the same man who had taken over the Arkansas capitol project, claimed, “The architects of the country and the people of Minnesota at the time felt that I was the real architect of the state capitol.”

Reviewing the evidence, I am left in an unsatisfactory position:  there is compelling visual and architectural evidence that the two domes are similar; and there is the documented interest of the Arkansas Capitol Commission and Gov. Donaghey in the Mississippi Capitol.  However, the only evidence linking the two domes is Mann’s 1937 letter, written decades after the events and written under stressful circumstances that might have produced an exaggerated account. This isn’t sufficient proof the domes are twins, much less that Mann is the author of both.

While Arkansas’s resources still have not been fully mined, perhaps it is time for historians outside of Arkansas to weigh these facts and look through their state’s historical resources. I have a feeling architectural historians in Mississippi and Illinois and the other states where Mann entered state capitol competitions (Washington, Kentucky and Minnesota ) will have an opinion on George R. Mann and some of his claims.  At the very least, y’all now know what Arkansans have been saying about your Capitol.

References

  • Christen, Barbara S. and Steven Flanders. Cass Gilbert, Life and Work: Architect of the Public Domain. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001.
  • Donaghey, George W. A Review of the Errors of Construction and Bad Management of the Arkansas State Capitol [1907] in UALR Archives at the Arkansas Studies Institute.
  • Ledbetter, Calvin. Carpenter from Conway: George Washington Donaghey as Governor of Arkansas, 1909-1913. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1993.
  • 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.
  • Mann, George R.  Letter dated October 6, 1932 in J.N. Heiskell Collection, UALR Archives at the Arkansas Studies Institute.
  • Mann, George R. Selections from an Architect’s Portfolio: George R. Mann. St. Louis, Mo.: National Chemigraph Company, 1893, no. 756 on Reel 56, in American Architectural Books.
  • Thompson, Neil B. Minnesota’s State Capitol: The Art and Politics of a Public Building. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1974.

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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, Historic Preservation, Jackson

9 replies

  1. This has been fascinating and I have enjoyed every part of it!

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  2. A graceful and judicious conclusion to a fascinating series; my compliments to the chef!

    I lean toward accepting the sense of Mann’s claim, while recognizing that in his late-life screed he muddled some details (such as the position of the projected Mississippi campanile and the presence or not of any dome on Link’s original design). On the other hand, part of me wonders if Mann could have passed over an opportunity to draw attention to his work, such as the one presumably provided by “his” dome design ending up atop the Arkansas Capitol.

    Handsome domes, both of ’em!

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  3. Without seeing Mann’s design for the Mississippi Capitol Dome its difficult to estimate why the Capitol Commission ask Link to change his dome and why Link would have ask Mann for his Dome plans. Looking at Link’s original presentation drawing, its major difference from any of Mann’s other dome renderings is the lack of a drum. With the removal of the campanile a drum is necessary to give the dome its height, or as Bernard Green would say and “the strength required for a monumental building”

    Thank you Mr. Blake for this wonderful series!

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  4. I agree with Thomas that without proof either in the form of Mann’s original MS submission, complete with a dome that’s a dead-ringer for the one currently there, or something in Link’s records noting Mann’s dome contribution, I’m unconvinced. I just can’t conceive of an architect giving up such a huge piece of his design without any compensation or credit.

    Besides that, as you mention, Mann’s submissions for other state capitols uniformly have the St. Peter’s type rather than the St. Paul’s, which gives pause. If he thinks that St. Peter’s is the best dome for long low buildings, why submit St. Paul’s for Mississippi, which is essentially just as long and low as the others?

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