Tomorrow marks the eighth birthday of Preservation in Mississippi, and in our annual tradition, we celebrate by returning to the Old Capitol, the subject of the first post on MissPres. This year, our birthday will be a birthweek, since I’ll be reprinting excerpts from an article by A.S. Coody that first appeared in The Journal of Mississippi History in April 1949 (Vol XI, No. 2), titled “Repair of and Changes in the Old Capitol.” Coody served as secretary to the capitol commission during the renovation project, and later became a politician in his own right and a friend of Theodore Bilbo’s.
His article, written 30 years after the fact, is a valuable and frequently opinionated record of one of Mississippi’s most important early preservation efforts, one which extended over 15 years and sometimes involved sheer willpower to keep the building standing long enough to be preserved. There are many little nuggets of insight throughout for preservationists today, and just so you won’t miss them, I’m highlighting the the quotes I find most interesting in bold. I’ve placed ellipses where I’ve left out passages I think may get overly in the weeds, and if you see something in italics, you know I couldn’t help myself from making a snide remark in the midst of this serious article.
The original article contains no photographs, but thankfully, there are surviving photos in the MDAH collection that show just how bad the Old Capitol had gotten in the decade or so since its abandonment in 1903 for the New Capitol. Truth be told, the phrase “rack and ruin” applies to how bad the Old Capitol had gotten, with plaster rubble piled up, vines climbing around in the Senate chamber, a tree growing in the old Supreme Court, and so many window panes broken out, I stopped counting. I’ve taken the liberty of adding some of these photos to the text so you can see for yourself. (More on those images and the photographer who took them in following posts.)
REPAIR OF AND CHANGES IN THE OLD CAPITOL
By A.S. Coody
The Journal of Mississippi History, Vol XI (Apr 1949), No. 2. pp. 87-103.
The work on the old capitol done under authority of Acts of the Legislature in 1916, requires, for its understanding, a knowledge of the history of the structure. It was authorized by the Legislature in 1933. The date of its completion and occupancy is uncertain, from the records available.
A brief review of the Acts of the Legislature, shows that in February, 1833, an act was approved putting into effect a previous act to provide for the erection of a state house. The capitol was then a two story brick building at the corner of Capitol and President streets. The 1833 session of the Legislature also enacted a law appropriating $95,000 “for a State House” and $10,000 for “a house for the governor.” The act provided that the governor should appoint an architect, whose duties were defined. It was specified that the foundation should be of stone, the walls of brick, and the timbers, except the floors, should be cypress, and all materials, “to be of the most lasting and durable character.”
In December, 1833, an act authorized the architect “to let out additional contracts for erection of State House.” An additional appropriation of $70,000 was made. Another act appropriated $65,000.
In 1836 a law was enacted appointing Richard Davidson, Perry Cohea and Henry K. Moss as Public Buildings Commissioners, and William Nichols as architect. The duties were defined, and provision made to alter existing contracts. The sum of $65,000 was appropriated to complete the state house.
In 1838, $15,000 was provided to pay material contracts of the three persons named. Brick and lumber are mentioned.
. . . .
In 1840, the sum of $12,000 was appropriated for “completion of the State Capitol.” At the same session there was an act requiring the Commissioners of Public Buildings to have all persons removed from apartments in the capitol, except state officers and employees, and to allow no one to occupy the second floor at night.
. . . .
Finally, in January, 1842, the Legislature designated the “apartments” assigned to the Governor and other state officials.
The writer was informed, in 1917, by Theodore Link, the architect of the old capitol restoration work, that the building was occupied in 1839, but was not complete in all details. This seems correct in view of the Acts of the Legislature in February 1839, which authorized the Masonic Lodge to occupy the upper apartments in the “old state-house,” or the building at Capitol and President Streets, and appropriated $50,000 “for speedy completion and furnishing of said capitol.” Mr. Link also said that the first architect laid the foundation of the capitol so that it faced Pearl River, then flowing by the southwest corner of the present fair grounds. The bay, now at the rear of the building, was to have been the front, similar to the Governor’s mansion.
In 1836, William Nichols was named architect, and from the language of the act, it is apparent that some contracts in connection with the capitol had been made. Nichols made new plans for the capitol, and added the present western front of Ionic columns, using the original foundation. This foundation was constructed by digging a trench about 10 feet deep and 4 feet wide around the site of the outer walls, and around the base of the circular dome. This trench was filled with stone rubble and the spaces between the stones filled with mortar. This was so well done, that it has never been changed, and the foundation is now without a defect.
. . . .
During the carpetbag regime, an expensive iron fence was erected around the capitol, and it remained in part until the repairs in 1916-1918. The carpetbaggers contracted for a new roof to replace the original copper. The report is that the salvage of the copper removed was worth more than the cost of the new roof. But the contractor found the roofing of the dome a difficult task, and the copper was left. The main part of the dome is now covered by the original copper, placed there probably in 1838 or 1839.
Between the years 1890 and 1900, the safety of the Capitol began to be questioned and the reports of the architects were unfavorable. In all, six or seven adverse reports were filed. After the New Capitol was occupied the Old Capitol was abandoned, with many records and a considerable amount of furniture, such as desks and tables, some of walnut. It was used for several years in connection with the State Fair, and the ground floor corridors and rooms were used to display agricultural products.
THE MOVEMENT FOR RESTORATION
When the new Capitol was occupied by the state officials in the latter part of 1903, the old capitol was considered unsafe, and was almost entirely abandoned. It was heated by stoves and fireplaces, and could not be used in cold weather. The offices in the new Capitol were supplied with new furniture, and the larger part of the furniture in the old Capitol was left there. Many records which were not in current use were not removed.
The movement for a “restoration” of the old state house was begun by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Daughters of the American Revolution, in 1903. The proposal was that the building be restored to its original condition and used as an historic landmark, possibly by the Department of Archives and History. The reports of architects who examined the building were adverse, and it was accepted as true that the building was dangerous, and likely to collapse at any time.
Governor Vardaman recommended to the Legislature in 1906 that the old Capitol be removed and the land sold.
The following is from his annual message to the 1906 session of the Legislature:
Standing as it does, a monument to the heroic achievements and splendid accomplishments which glorify the manhood of the early history of our commonwealth, I hesitate to suggest that it be torn down and its site devoted to other uses. Its destruction seems almost a sacrilege when we remember all that has taken place within its historic walls and the epochal events associated with its history.
. . . . (platitudes and more platitudes, always a warning that a politician is about to say “But”) . . . .
But it has served its purpose. Decay and disintegration have done and are doing their destructive work; the end has come, and there is but one thing, in my judgment, to be done and that is to tear the building down and dispose of the land. I therefore recommend that you enact such laws as may be necessary to empower the Capitol Commission to dispose of this property to the best interests of the State and turn the money arising from the sale into the State Treasury. There is a large body of land lying east of the old Capitol belonging to the state which at this time could be sold along with the old Capitol site at a very satisfactory price.
This recommendation was repeated in 1908. But no action was taken, and the old building continued as a decaying ruin. In conversation with the writer, Vardaman, then United States Senator, stated that reputable architects had informed him that the building could not be repaired and restored because its disintegration had gone too far. One reason assigned was that the foundation had been crushed and the south end had sunk several inches. This was an error due to superficial examination. During the progress of the work in 1917, W.C. Musick, superintendent in charge, questioned the settling of the south end, and requested me to hold the leveling rod while he used the transit. This revealed that the building was originally constructed to conform to the slope of the ground, and that the foundation was not impaired. This was one of several things overlooked by the examining architects.
Back to post 1 I’m not sure whether this is true, but it’s an intriguing possibility and would make some sense given that the Pearl River was navigable and it was common for riverfront buildings to have both a river and a town facade.
This is the first in a series about the 1916-17 renovation of the Old Capitol. Want to read the rest?
- MissPres at 8: Repairing the Old Capitol, 1916-1917
- MissPres at 8: It seems to have been generally accepted that the old capitol could not be restored.
- MissPres at 8: Spiral staircases and magnificent timbers
- MissPres at 8: Oh Bilbo, where are our columns?