MissPres at 10: The Old Capitol’s Red Brick Phase

Old Capitol Museum

Preservation in Mississippi is 10 years old today–can you believe it? Traditionally, we take the day of our anniversary to go back to the subject of the original MissPres post, the Old Capitol: not just one of Mississippi’s most historic sites and a great work of architecture, but also the site of Mississippi’s first preservation battle, a decade-long knock-down drag-out with ups and downs, dirty tricks, hurricanes, and a surprise ending courtesy of architect Theodore Link.

Since our first post in 2009 was about the restoration of the Old Capitol after the depredations of Hurricane Katrina, a restoration that involved covering the brick walls with stucco scored to resemble stone blocks, I thought it would be appropriate for our 10th anniversary post to highlight the first restoration of the building, the one that took the stucco off and exposed the red brick. This was a phase of the building that I think many people loved, Mississippians having an affinity for exposed red brick, but it turned out to be quite destructive to the building, as the low-fired brick weathered badly and needed the protection of the stucco to keep out moisture.

There’s always been a story that Charlotte Capers, who oversaw the project for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, demanded against the restoration architect’s wishes that the brick be exposed as more original to architect William Nichols design intent. I’ve never been sure how much credence to place in this story, but it is interesting that at least in the early planning stages in December 1958, architect John Ware of Overstreet, Ware & Ware, was expecting to repair the stucco finish, not remove it. 

As we now know, the Old Capitol’s phase as a red brick state museum lasted until August 29, 2005, when it was unroofed for the second time in its life by a hurricane. It reopened in early 2009, just in time to become the subject of the first MissPres post of all time.

Old Capitol Project Gets BC’s Approval

By The Associated Press

The State Building Commission today approved a $1,567,948 restoration of the state’s 118-year-old Capitol building. The commission allocated $617,948 from its funds to complete the financing for the work and a $50,000 repair job on the dome of the new Capitol.

Already on hand was one million dollars from a bond issue.

The vote to undertake the project was unanimous, after Gov. J.P. Coleman, house speaker Walter Sillers and other members pressed for approval of the project and authorizing the extra funds. The restored building will be used as a state museum and will include house and senate chambers and the governor’s office as they originally were.

The old Capitol is at the head of Capitol street, the main street of Jackson, and is an imposing structure built with slave labor in 1840 at the cost of about $400,000. It is considered one of the nation’s best examples of Greek revival architecture.

Architect John Ware told the commission the work would involve strengthening the old building structurally, replacing the stone facing on the first floor and the stucco finish on the exterior of the second.

AAAHHHHH!!!!! I should have put a trigger warning on this one! Old Capitol Museum construction, c.1959. MDAH PI STR C_36_52

The North and South walls will be taken down and rebuilt [he wasn’t kidding, as attested in this rather horrifying picture from the MDAH collection of the construction work underway], the foundation stabilized and drainage work undertaken. The low bidder on the project was Robert C. Crouch of Memphis, Tenn., who entered a bid of $1,498,100. The contract, which will include the $50,000 new Capitol project, includes interior and exterior work and all incidentals except furnishings for the house and senate chambers and exhibit cases for the museum rooms. The present concrete stairways will be taken down and the two circular staircases at the front will be restored [meaning completely reconstructed since they had been removed in Link’s renovation of the building in 1917].

Coleman told the commission, “if we don’t see this thing through we could come back in 1960 and be confronted with a budget problem. No doubt exists in my mind that we’ll have one . . .”

The governor said he feared if the project were postponed it might not be undertaken in the future.

Coleman said the project was “of consequence to the entire state” and Sillers agreed. “I think we ought to go along with it.”

Coleman said if some building emergency arose a special session of the Legislature could be called, but that all of the money required for the job would not be needed for two years.

Ware, who drew up plans for the restoration, told the commission it could not spend more than one million dollars on the work through next year.

The Crouch bid said work would be completed in 550 calendar days after starting, which would mean almost two years would be required for the work.

Besides the $1,498,100 bid from Crouch, there would be $119,848 in architects costs for a total of $1,617,948, including the $50,000 in new Capitol work.

Clarion-Ledger, Dec. 12, 1958


More anniversary posts . . .

Categories: Capitols Old & New, Historic Preservation, Jackson, MDAH, Preservation People/Events, Renovation Projects


6 replies

  1. Happy Birthday! Thank you, E. L., for bringing MissPres into the world ten years ago.


  2. i echo mr rosell’s statement; am sorry i wasn’t a reader from the beginning but glad i ‘discovered’ the site recently. keep up the good work.

    glad the old capitol survives, but a variety of questionable ‘activities’ have happened to the building under the guise of ‘restoration’.

    and, while i forget the exact phrase, every ‘restoration’ betrays its own time as well as the ‘time’ it seeks to recreate. and, in many instances, ‘restorations’ have been ‘ re-restored’ later, understandable if the knowledge of the subject has widened. ‘restoration’ is a very tricky subject!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Congratulations, Malvaney, on reaching this milestone. It has hardly seemed like a decade (it has not been for me, yet, I did not join the site as an author until 2010 after several months of commenting).

    Maybe some of our readers can celebrate this milestone by becoming guest contributors or authors, writing about the preservation news and issues and historic places in their parts of Mississippi. That way, as Preservation in Mississippi moves into its second decade, it can continue to grow and hopefully have a positive impact on preserving Mississippi’s historic buildings and landscapes.

    As for the Old Capitol, after reading about it for a decade and seeing that horrifying picture of its rebuilding, I simply have to wonder if we are dealing with a classic Ship of Theseus. What exactly is left of the Old Capitol? After the neglect, remuddlings, remuddlings in the guise of restorations, and weather, is there any material remaining from the original, William Nichols-designed, antebellum building? I am very glad that “an” Old Capitol still exists and was not demolished during one of its several threatened periods, but I have always been interested and concerned with the materiality of historic preservation—making sure that old buildings are still made of old materials—and it does not seem like the Old Capitol is still made of very much in the way of old materials.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your questions about the Old Capitol really get to the heart of preservation, don’t they? I admit I held its renovations against it for a long time, and like probably most preservationists of 2019, I wish different decisions had been made at times. Over the last century, the building has experienced a surfeit of love combined with what we now think of as a deficiency in preservation understanding. But as I’ve spent more time with the building and especially as I’ve done more research into each renovation–research in which the voice of the people who accomplished the renovation speak–I’ve come to a better acceptance. Once you get over the shock of that picture, you can start to acknowledge that there is more there than not–the imposing portico, interior trim (obviously some reconstructed but based on originals), the rotunda, which is such a breathtaking space. And the new material has been mostly based on original material. I know it’s become an overused word, if not a cliche, but the OC is a palimpsest, with different layers that demonstrate a love for the building and for Mississippi–yes sometimes misguided, but still love, which seems relevant to note on Valentines Day. And for the last 100 years at least, those layers are preservation layers, made with conscious intent to save and reuse and repurpose a beloved building, so it’s our history and those were our people. That’s how I see it now, while still trying to avoid looking at that picture.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. and, today is henry howard’s birthday anniversary as well. reuben harrison hunt, whose work was so important in ms–and, yes, there is ‘news’ on the lowndes county courthouse ‘original building photo’, friends—keep watching!–was born on feb 2.


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