How Mississippians of Heart Seek to Save an Historic Landmark

As is our tradition on MissPres, we celebrate the end of our fourth year by returning to the Old Capitol, our touchstone since our first post back in February 2009. Today’s post is long, maybe too long, but I think worth the read. It’s a reprint of an article from August 30, 1914, I came across in the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s archives a while back.

Unfortunately, the photos included in the article came out like something from a first-generation Xerox, so I’ve inserted instead a couple of photos taken in 1915 by a man named J. F. Laist. These show the really deplorable condition of this once-grand building, and to my knowledge are the best interior photos of the building before it was renovated as a state office building in 1917 (unless of course, the originals of the article’s photos could be located). The original photos here reside at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in the “Capitols” photograph collection. As with last year’s anniversary article, the author appeals to “sentiment” as well as logical arguments about the need for more space in state government. Early preservationists didn’t shy from being called sentimental, and even though we may disagree with some of the events they were sentimental for, I think the title speaks for them and for us today.

How Mississippians of Heart Seek to Save an Historic Landmark

J.F. Laist, 1915. View of north side of Old Capitol Building, three story stone, plaster, brick building in decayed condition, sign in front says "Danger Keep Out," grounds, trees, fences, ticket booths. MDAH Accession PI/STR/C36 /Box 20 Folder 95

J.F. Laist, 1915. View of north side of Old Capitol Building, three story stone, plaster, brick building in decayed condition, sign in front says “Danger Keep Out,” grounds, trees, fences, ticket booths. MDAH Accession PI/STR/C36 /Box 20 Folder 95

Old Mississippi State House, Shall Building Be Preserved?

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Movement Statewide to Preserve the Ancient Capitol, Relic of Historic Days–Scores of Organizations Are Behind the Movement. How Sentiment Is Trying to Hold Head Against Commercialism in a Contest for the Building

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For the Times-Picayune

Jackson, Miss., Aug. 21, 1914.

FOR SENTIMENTAL REASONS, if for no other, thousands of good, and, perhaps, a few bad, Mississippians, propose to create such a strong demand for the repair and preservation of the old Capitol that it would be well for every legislative candidate to incorporate such a plank in his platform.

It is proposed to show the taxpayers as well as the voters who pay no taxes, that it is to the interest of the State to spend a goodly sum of money in snatching this venerable and historic structure from the corroding hand of time–to prove that the State needs it in its business now, and will need it more and more as the years roll by.

This movement does not originate with the people of Jackson, the possibility being that if left to them the commercial spirit would prevail in a demand that the old Capitol be razed and the ground on which it stands be sold to the highest bidder.

Patriotic men and women in every section of the State are insisting that the next Legislature shall make provision for repairing instead of demolishing. They look at the matter from a business as well as a sentimental standpoint. They appreciate the fact that the new Capitol is even now crowded, and that heavy rentals are being paid for the storage of supplies for the National Guard; that several of the departments of the State government are in cramped quarters; that the halls and corridors are most of the time filled with great and unsightly boxes of goods for the Commissioner of Agriculture, and that he is forced to the necessity of converting a large room into a printing office–a place that is hard to keep in order, tidy and clean.

More Room Needed

There is no disputing the fact that more room is needed for the business of the State, and that one of two things must be done–add to the new Capitol, or repair the old. From a business standpoint the two propositions are well balanced, but when sentiment is thrown on the old Capitol end of the scales, the light weight of the opposite side is shown so plainy that he “who rung may read.”

The idea is to educate the people of the State along the line and to demand of candidates for the Legislature that they express themselves one way or the other–for or against the old Capitol. Some of them may try to straddle the fence and slodge the proposition, just as was done a few years ago when they were required to answer for or against free silver.

The Daughters of the Confederacy, Daughters of the American Revolution, Confederate Veterans, Sons of Confederate Veterans and scores of other organizations of this character, are behind the movement, and they are not actuated solely by sentiment. It was sentiment that but the imposing Confederate monument at Jackson, it is sentiment that has caused several counties and towns of the State to subscribe money and erect marble shafts dedicated to the memory of the brave men who wore the gray, it was sentiment that caused the Legislature of two years ago to erect a monument to the women of the Confederay on the Capitol grounds at Jackson, and again to place markers and a monument to the memory of the Mississippians who fell at Vicksburg, in the National Park near that city. No protest outside of legislative halls has ever been heard, though it has taken large sums of money from the pockets of taxpayers–and yet, except for sentimental reasons, the appeals of the women of the State for funds would never have been answered, and no monuments would now top Mississippi hills as silent reminders to future generations of deeds of valor performed by their fathers.

It was sentiment that built the triumphal arches of Rome, it was sentiment that sent skyward the statue of Liberty, and placed a costly monument over the mortal remains of Grant, it was sentiment that caused New Orleans to dedicate a monument to a big-hearted woman. The world is full of sentiment and evidences of it–why should Mississippi hesitate to preserve the one great historical building within her borders on that ground alone, if there should happen to be no other? Let latter-day commercialism scoff and scorn as much as it pleases, it cannot be denied that sentiment is one of the strongest ties in the human heart, and, as with pity, is akin to love.

Its History

Mississippi was one of the first States of the Union to built a handsome Capitol, and in those days of more than three-quarters of a century ago the Statehouse at Jackson is said to have been one of the finest in the land. During the 1833 session of the Leigslature it was determined that a new Capitol should be erected. The State was then using a small building that stood on the corner of Capitol and President Streets, just one block from the site afterwards selected for the new edifice. An appropriation of $170,000 was made to cover cost of building and furnishings, architects fees, etc., and it was ordered that the proceeds of the sale of town lots in Jackson should be used in defraying the building expenses. The selection of an architect was left to Gov. Abram M. Scott, and after considerable trouble he secured the services of John Lawrence of Nashville, Tenn., who was recommened by Gov. Carroll of that State. Gov. Scott died in 1833, with cholera, which was epidemic, and was succeeded by Charles Lynch for the unexpired term after which Hiram G. Runnells became Governor. In 1835 he became dissatisfied with Architect Lawrence and appointed William Nichols as his successor. The corner-stone was laid in the presence of a great crowd, the planters from the surrounding country coming with retinue of servants and well-filled commissaries, to participate in the festivities.

The Legislature of 1838 made an additional appropriation of $120,000, and work was pushed. The material was all “grown in Mississippi,” something that cannot be said of much of the material in the new Capitol. The brick were made in Jackson, the timbers were cut from adjacent forests and sawn into lumber, the stone was quarried from the hills near Raymond, and is there yet. [read The Stone Mason’s Scandal before believing this last statement]

Though uncompleted, the then new Capitol was occupied in 1839, A.G. McNutt being the first Governor to hold office therein. The Legislature of that year made additional appropriations and had investigations as to what had become of some of the money already spent. The total cost of the building seems to have been $400,000.

ARCHITECTURE

J.F. Laist, 1915. Senate chamber. Accession PI/STR/C36 /Box 20 Folder 95

J.F. Laist, 1915. Senate chamber. Accession PI/STR/C36 /Box 20 Folder 95

Seventy-five eventful years have passed since the first occupancy of this old structure, and had it been carefully cared for and protected when leaks first began to appear, it would be as sound to-day as any man could wish. The walls are massive and, except on one corner, seem as substantial as ever they were–good for another three-quarters of a century if attended to even now. The finish, the style, the architectural beauty, the magnificent dome are all there. They could not be replaced to-day for what the building cost, and yet there are those who for “business reasons” would dynamite them out of existence. The private individual able to own and to hold such a piece of property would never have permitted it to go to such decay, but having once gone, because of adversities and scarcities of funds, he would, fortune having smiled on him again, made haste to restore it to its one-time splendor. The State may have been poverty stricken when the old Capitol needed attention first, but not now, no matter what the calamity-howlers may say.

If these old walls could speak, what wonderful stories of past grandeur they might relate, what glorious chapters of history they could recall! It was here that Andrew Jackson, the hero of New Orleans, was received on the occasion of his second visit, with an outburst of patriotic enthusiasm.

Henry Clay, the patron saint of the Whig Party, was a guest of Mississippin in 1844, and addressed a distinguished gathering from the balcony of the old Capitol.

Jefferson Davis, the fearless colonel of the First Mississippi in the war with Mexico, was welcomed home within the portals of this moss-grown building, and its very rafters have often rattled with the eolquence of Prentiss, McClung, Lamar and others of great renown.

Its legislative halls have resounded to many fierce debates on political and other subjects; several of the most intensely interesting conventions the State has ever known, or will ever know, were held there–chief among which was that which took Mississippi out of the Union and sent thousands of the flower of her young manhood to soldiers’ graves. Here the present wonderful Constitution was written by George, Calhoun, Harris and others of illustrious memory, whose chief ambition was to preserve Mississippi for Mississippians. That they builded well is evidenced by the fact that several other Southern States have followed their lead in the elimination of the negro from affairs of State.

No other one building now standing is so prominently and directly associated with the history of Mississippi, and yet there are those who would tear it down and blot out the memories it serves to keep alive for the sake of the few cents it would cost them in the way of taxation to repair and preserve it, even though such expenditure would be a great investment from a financial point of view.

It is not believed that sentiment alone will ever save the old Capitol, strong though it may be in the hearts of the majority, and those patriotic organizations that petitioned the last Legislature for an appropriation do not propose to risk their all on any one card. They appreciate the trend of the times toward commercialism and will undertake to prove beyond all question of peradventure that it is to the interest of the State–a State that is proud and boastful of her past–to save this old reminder of the times that tried men’s souls and when chivalry was in flower in the South.

The object here is not to give a history of the old Capitol, except in a general way, sufficient to impress the importance of the movement for its preservation upon the citizens of the State, and on this showing the assistance of those whose hearts are absolutely devoid of anything akin to sentiment is asked “as a business proposition. The original cost is placd at $400,000 in Mr. Dunbar Rowland’s excellent “History of Mississippi’s Old Capitol,” published in the 1912 Statistical Register, issued by the Department of Archives and History and that is no doubt as near correct as possible to ascertain, though tradition has always had it that the structure cost “about a half-million.”  But that building was put up when labor as well as material was cheap, and it is safe to claim that the material now standing and forming part and parcel of the venerable and venerated old Capitol is worth at least half the original cost, so that to tear it down would mean that the State is throwing away about a quarter of a million dollars that could be saved by the expenditure of $100,000.

THE ILLUSTRATIONS

J.F. Laist, 1915. nterior of Old Capitol Building, photo shows dilapidated condition, pieces of broken plaster on floor, broken door and windows, vines growing on walls, Corinthian columns, railings. MDAH Accession PI/STR/C36 /Box 20 Folder 95

J.F. Laist, 1915. Supreme Court. MDAH Accession PI/STR/C36 /Box 20 Folder 95

The illustrations accompanying this article were taken a few days since. They show the dilapidated condition but traces of original beauty are very evident. The windows are gone from many sashes and ugly advertising boards and business signs add to the picture of decay, but the massive columns, standing like great sentinels at the head of Jackson’s principal street, are as proud and as solid to-day as when placed in position during the early days of the last century, while the walls, constructed of native rock, have but grown the harder and more enduring.

For several years the management of the State Fair Association made use of rooms on the ground floor, but last fall established headquarters at a more convenient place inside the grounds, and the old building is now unoccupied save by myriads of bats and an occasional owl, the locquacious bird of the night, which perches high above the carved seats consecrated to the use of Mississippi’s illustrious lawmakers, and which only for a short period were not permitted to be desecrated by aliens. That is one chapter Mississippians would blot out–and they did, with a vengeance that made such a clean sweep no taint or odor was left behind.

–E.F. Frantz



Categories: Architectural Research, Historic Preservation, Jackson

4 replies

  1. Hard to believe the Old Capitol ever looked like the rubble-strewn photos.
    The pictures should be on display in the building today.
    Great article…and certainly not too long.

    Like

  2. This is wonderful to see where it was and to know where it is now….WOW!!!

    Like

  3. Happy fourth birthday MissPres!

    Like

  4. I haven’t been inside since the after Katrina restoration. I agree with Mr. Workman. I do so hope there is a little spot in the Old Capitol somewhere with this fine building’s history and photos. If not, maybe someone could suggest that to Clay Williams.

    Like

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