Old Capitol Follies

Over MissPres’ lifetime, we’ve spent quite a bit of time examining how our New Capitol got built. But come to think about it, we’ve spent not much time at all on why our New Capitol got built. There’s a whole backstory about the Old Capitol’s decline that resulted in several efforts to get a new capitol funded. Part of that story is about poverty and the poor quality of the brick and soil, but another part is about the same old story of lack of maintenance. Over the next few months, we’ll look at some of the bad press–some serious, some humorous–the statehouse received through the 1890s.

Today’s re-printed article, “Some Southern Capitols” from the American Architect and Building News, is one of the most architecturally descriptive, and one of the earliest I’ve found that argues for a whole new building, rather than just repair of the old building. It also brings to life just how close the Southern states still were to the devastation of the Civil War, even as late as 1890, and of course, the casual racism of the time.

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American Architect and Building News, Vol 29, No. 763 (Aug. 9, 1890), p. 84-86.

As time effaces the horrible scars with which the Southern States emerged from the great civil conflict twenty-five years ago, and as the States turn to account the sources of wealth which were undiscovered before the war, the demand for architects to beautify the Southern cities will be increased. Already there has been an awakening in this direction all over the South. Southern cities are putting on new garments, more beautiful than the old, we “moderns” are disposed to think, though it is not without some regret that even the most “modern of the moderns” sees the roomy old colonial houses, with broad halls and broad galleries, give way to houses with cosey [sic] nooks and corners, but less room, and probably less adapted to this climate than the ante-bellum structure. That the change should take place here just at the time when the “old colonial” is attracting the attention of the architects of the North and its many admirable features are gaining favor for it among Northern home builders, is perhaps suggestive of a train of thought, which, if pursued, might turn this paper into a screed on the restlessness of popular taste.

Attention to private architecture must lead to an increased interest in public buildings. Already this is being exemplified throughout the South. There are several reasons why county pride awakens earlier and develops faster than State pride. There are also several reasons why the county is better able than the State to carry out its plans for public improvement. Thus is to be explained what may be noticed by the Southern tourist: new court-houses, jails and other county buildings, all of modern designs, rising all over the South, while at the various State capitals the tendency is to adhere to the ante-bellum structure in which the State has transacted its business from the start.

But the architectural impetus apparent throughout the South must be sufficient to impel itself eventually into the State capitals. A people who fought so long and so nobly for State rights will not be found deficient in State pride. And State pride is sure to find its expression sooner or later in the erection of an official habitation for the commonwealth conforming in dignity to the high idea the Southern people have of the State.

The movement has begun. Georgia found its opportunity when, ‘after the war it selected a new capital city and began de novo the work of supplying itself with public buildings. “The Lone Star” State has made an effort to eclipse even the National Capitol, in the structure it has recently completed in Austin. Some of the other States were fortunate in preserving, through the war, capitols which were worth preserving, and are still adapted to their needs. Poverty has held the other States back until now. But with returning prosperity we may expect ere long to see other new capitals rising in the South. When the movement gets fairly under way doubtless the country will look to the South to find the handsomest specimens of State architecture. Architects everywhere will look with interest upon such a renaissance. It will not be unprofitable for them now to take a survey of the field of this future architectural activity and watch patiently for the first signs of its appearing.

Mississippi furnishes an illustration of a rather discouraging phase of this subject. The need of a new State-house must be apparent to the most casual visitor at Jackson, the capital city. It is a city of between five and ten thousand inhabitants. Evidences abound of wealth, taste and a recent impetus given to building. It is a beautiful residential place. The residents are by no means deficient in local pride, but it is manifest that their local pride is not based upon their possession of the commonwealth’s capitol.

In exhibiting their city to visitors they recommend other State buildings upon the same broad avenue—the State Lunatic Asylum, the State Deaf and Dumb Institution, the Institution of Learning for the Blind, and even the State Penitentiary—but they are inclined to be apologetic in regard to the capitol. Legislators whom one may meet in Jackson are not anxious to exhibit the scene of their legislative exploits. And the governor being provided by the State with a substantial residence in the old colonial style, recently refitted at an expense of four thousand dollars, doubtless takes more pride in that than in the larger and more important building in which he is interested.The location of the present capitol could scarcely be surpassed. It is at the head of a busy thoroughfare leading from the hotels and union depot, and at the summit of a slope sufficiently high to make it a prominent object from any point of view within the city. But the building itself is not prepossessing. It is of a thoroughly conventional type, with dome, rotunda, portico, pediment and columns. In size it suggests scarcely more than the court-house of an ordinary county town. Substantially built in its day it has had to submit to the disintegrating process which time inflicts upon all buildings. War has raged about it also, but the defacement of its stucco ornamentation, and the wide cracks which appear in the interior walls denote, not the ravages of war, but neglect and attendant decay. It is not suggestive of any interesting history so that it need be preserved on that account. The only suggestion it has to make is that is has served its time, faithfully, let us hope, and that it should now give place to the fulfillment of some architect’s dream.

Upon the grounds stand the foundation of a monument to the memory of the Confederate dead. This has been the undertaking of a Monumental Association, composed of ladies. The State recently appropriated $10,000 towards the completion of the monument, and the work is now being carried rapidly forward.

For several years the question of building a suitable capitol has been agitated by members of the State government, and it cannot fail to be instructive to consider some of the causes of failure to carry through such a scheme of apparent necessity. Said a legislator to the writer recently, “We are farther from building a new State-house to-day than we were when the matter was first proposed.” This does not sound encouraging, it must be admitted. But Mississippi, though slow in recuperating after the war, will not long consent to having the other States outstrip her in the progressive march. Mississippi has suffered from something which every Mississippian will tell you was worse than the war, viz: reconstruction. There are certain terms used here that no Northern man can understand until he has lived here awhile, and then he will not only understand what ” radical rule” and “negro domination” mean, but also why the reconstruction period was such a dark passage in the history—the unwritten history—of the State, and why Mississippi has been so slow in recovering from the effects of the war. Her day of prosperity is but just now dawning, and this prosperity is destined some day to exhibit itself in a new and beautiful State capitol, despite the gloomy predictions of the legislator.

But another reason is to be assigned for the perpetuation of the relic of ante-bellum contentedness known as the State capitol. Mississippi is essentially an agricultural State, and the Farmer’s Alliance is a political power in the State. The ante-bellum planter was usually a gentleman of culture, taste and generous habits. Not so the average Alliance man. And this political power is opposed to public improvements which do not make immediate returns with interest to the people of the amounts expended therein. A biennial legislature is the result of Alliance legislation, and there is a prospect that this will be changed in time to a session once in four years. Such a policy is, of course, destructive of real progress. But despite these drawbacks Mississippi is bound to advance. Her debt has been reduced $10,000,000 since 1875, and is now only $3,000,000. She is developing her resources, and living within her means. And being proud of her prosperity, she will some time throw off the trammels of Alliance parsimony, and give free rein to the refined ideas which characterize the better class of Mississippians.

Arthur Howard Noll



Categories: Architectural Research, Jackson

3 replies

  1. Something tells me that Mr. Noll would not be impressed with the modern day Tea Party, either. Thanks for the post.

    Like

  2. Everything old is new again, I think is the appropriate phrase here. Or is it, the more things change the more they stay the same?

    Like

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  1. Mississippi Unbuilt: 1897 New Capitol « Preservation in Mississippi

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