MissPres at 8: Oh Bilbo, where are our columns?

Today is the last in our four-part 8th blog birthday series about the renovation of our Old Capitol in 1916-17, as recalled in 1949 by the assistant secretary to the Capitol Commission, A.S. Coody. This project saved this important and beautiful landmark, a culmination of a 13 year preservation fight by women’s groups and politicians. This was before the “historic preservation” handbook was written, and as you will read below, certain liberties were taken with the building that we would probably not approve today, but they won the war, even if they might have lost some battles.

This week’s series has been illustrated by a a set of photos taken by Theodore F. Laist (1868-1939). Laist was an architect who had worked at the Supervising Architect of the Treasury’s office earlier in the 1900s, and he later published an article “Two Early Mississippi Valley State Capitols,” in the May 1926 issue of Western Architect that included his thoughts on our Old Capitol. I’m not sure whether Laist’s 1915 photographs were for his own personal project or if he was being paid to take them, but they are the best documentation of the sad state of the building just before Theodore Link, et al, came to the rescue.

Today’s post picks up in the middle of the section entitled “The Work of Repair.” As before, I’ve inserted a few ellipses to skip some superfluous parts, and I have a few notes of my own in italics in the text.

Old Mississippi State Capitol, Jackson, 1930s operating as a state office building (courtesy MDAH)

Old Mississippi State Capitol, Jackson, 1930s operating as a state office building (courtesy MDAH)

The outside of the building is a good restoration of the original. The north and south entrances stand as constructed. The six columns at the front required only minor repairs, but the pediment is a new reproduction of the original, as are the cornices around the top of the building. The large cornice is of cypress. From the roof line up the wall are rebuilt, including the ornamental north and south ends. The plastering is new, except for one spot on the south and west front, which was shaded by the large oak tree, standing at this date (1949).

The iron lintels over the windows are the ones placed there when the building was constructed.

Senate Chamber, 1915, by T.F. Laist. Original photo at Miss. Department of Archives and History.

Senate Chamber, 1915, by T.F. Laist. Original photo at Miss. Department of Archives and History.

As an indication of the condition of the building in 1916, there was a sycamore tree growing above the north entrance. It was about 4 inches in diameter. There are many, many incidents which could be cited, but are omitted to save the recital of tiresome details.

. . . .

In the fall of 1916 everyone feared we would be involved in the European war, then raging. In order to secure a supply of competent workmen, with the approval of the Commission, I negotiated a contract with the Jackson Central Labor Council, whereby the old capitol work would be a union labor job, and the unions agreeing to supply competent workmen when called for. The wage scale was 35 cents an hour for carpenters and 60 cents an hour for brickmasons. They worked 54 hours a week, as will be seen from the payrolls, printed in the report. The unions faithfully fulfilled the terms of their contract, even when war conditions increased the pay above the scale agreed upon.

TRIGGER WARNING, PRESERVATIONISTS!!! Take three deep breaths and repeat this mantra as you continue reading: “They saved the building and the first floor doors and surrounds.”

The convicts who worked on the job deserve grateful recognition. They removed all the old furniture, and then demolished the interior from the roof down. The floors, columns, walls, partitions, doors, and other parts were torn out and thrown out the east windows, and then over the hill. Then the footings for the steel columns were dug and filled with concrete.

The steel framework was erected under the supervision of Joseph McDonnell, for many years engineer at the New Capitol, entirely with convict labor. The sixty-six columns are fastened together with beams, all riveted together. This work is dangerous, and requires skill and the ability to work on a narrow support high above the ground. Through the experience of Mr. Musick and Mr. McDonnell, the work of demolition, and erection of the steel framework, no serious accident occurred. The general conduct and behavior of the convicts was equal to a like group of free men. Their good work and loyalty was exhibited in an unusual degree after Sergeant Sam Nunnery was placed in charge. His genuine interest in the welfare of the men under him was immediately reflected in the conduct of the men. Not a one attempted to escape.

The printed reports of the commission and the architect refer to the failure of the penitentiary officials, Colonel W. A. Montgomery excepted, to furnish labor and materials when needed; the demand that the Commission pay the salary of the guards and sergeant; and a suit brought by the Department of Archives and History.[1] The basis of these matters was political ill-feeling between the Governor on one side and the Attorney General, two penitentiary trustees, and the Director of the Department of Archives and History on the other. The effort was to prevent the completion of the repair within the $125,000 appropriation.

Another matter which should be cleared is the sale of 40 columns to Governor Bilbo for $40.00, which it was claimed was less than the value. The Commission required me as Assistant Secretary to request bids and opinions from contractors and architects as to the value of the columns. All stated that the cost of repair would exceed the price of new columns, even if any one had need for them. Mr. Link concurred in the opinions. In fact he was at the time rebuilding an old mansion at Holly Springs, and tried, without success, to find a use for them in this building.[2]

In addition, news items and paid advertisements were inserted in the newspapers in Jackson, Memphis, and New Orleans. Governor Bilbo selected 40 of the columns, some wood and some iron, and paid $40.00 for them. When the action was criticized, he offered to donate them to anyone who desired to use then. Incidentally, the columns were never used, and may be at Poplarville to this day. Other columns and pilasters were sold as wood for $1.00 a load, and some to the penitentiary, which were never paid for.

. . . .

The cost of the repair cannot be stated accurately, because the printed report of the commission to the legislature of 1918, closes at March 13, 1918, but it was stated some additional work was required. The report shows the following:

Expenditures to date $122,951.59
Estimated future expense $48.00
Money cost to state $123,799.59
Labor and material from Penitentiary $8,113.18
TOTAL COST TO STATE $131,912.77

The penitentiary labor and material was based on $1.00 a day for men, $2.50 a day for single teams, $3.50 a day for double teams, and $6.00 a thousand for brick. The teams were used to haul sand from Pearl River and to haul brick, gravel and other materials from railroad cars. The penitentiary furnished 159,200 bricks. The pay to penitentiary employees of $1,928.12 is included in the listed expenditures. It will be seen from the above prices that labor and material cost far less than at present.

In his first report to the Legislature in 1916, Mr. Link stated that from newspaper reports the Old Capitol cost about $400,000 and to reproduce it in 1916 would cost about $300,000, and a new office building of equal cubical contents would cost about $250,000. At 1949 costs the old building has a value of about a million dollars.

The repair work was completed in time for some state departments to occupy it in December, 1917, and by the middle of March all departments had moved in.

Despite the delays and expense caused by obstructionist tactics, the work was completed on time, and for less than the $125,000 appropriated. It should be un-necessary to state that no graft or waste was involved. The four members of the capitol commission served without pay, and at all times acted for the interest of the state. The work stands as a monument to united, unselfish, devotion to the public trust.

Detailed records were kept, and the records of expenditures was complete. All the records, contracts, correspondence and plans and specifications were deposited with the Secretary of State. As there was no place to store these records in the capitol, they were placed in the vault of the Sanitorium at Magee. They should be there now.

————

[1] My understanding of this lawsuit was that Dunbar Rowland, director of MDAH, had been promised a space in the Old Capitol, which he had fought to save since the opening of the New Capitol in 1903. Personal and political disagreements put him at odds with Bilbo and the Legislature, and he never got to move to the OC.

[2] The MDAH Historic Resources Database shows Link working in 1917 on three house renovation projects in Holly Springs, where his wife had family: Featherston-Buchanan House (166 S. Craft St.); Polk-Cochran House (130 S. Craft) and possibly Dunvegan (159 W. Gholson).


This is the last in a four-part series about the 1916-17 renovation of the Old Capitol. Want to read the rest?

  1. MissPres at 8: Repairing the Old Capitol, 1916-1917
  2. MissPres at 8: It seems to have been generally accepted that the old capitol could not be restored.
  3. MissPres at 8: Spiral staircases and magnificent timbers
  4. MissPres at 8: Oh Bilbo, where are our columns?


Categories: Capitols Old & New, Jackson, MS Dept. of Archives and History, Renovation Projects

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9 replies

  1. Interesting case of the missing columns. I wonder if they got burnt up in the fire at Dream House?

    Like

  2. Interesting series for the week, but today’s has to win “best title” award.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I remember the columns in the yard of the Dream House after the fire in the MId-1960s when stopping to see the place. Word (rumor) at the time was that the house had been used by heroin smuggles and was burned when law enforcement was about to raid.

    Liked by 1 person

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