Capitol Glow: A Beaux Arts Treasure

Monday, July 22, 2013 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Jackson, MS

As the twentieth century rolled around, it became clear that the Mississippi government was outgrowing its 1839 capitol building.  Just a few blocks away, the state owned a vacant four-block lot on a small rise—former home of "The Walls," Mississippi's first state penitentiary.  During the Civil War, the prison had been employed as a munitions depot, making it a target for destruction when Jackson was occupied by Union forces in 1863.  This federal land-clearing conveniently created an ideal spot for a new state capitol location.

The state tapped St. Louis architect Theodore Link to design the new capitol building, and what a masterpiece he created.  A native of Germany, Link trained in Paris and was heavily influenced by the Beaux-Arts movement in architecture.  This inspiration is evident in the Mississippi State Capitol with its grand staircases, variety of stone finishes, elaborate moldings, dedication to symmetry, and richness of detail.  Working at the turn of the century, Link was also enamored with electric lighting, a recent innovation at the time, and used this technological novelty to great effect in the capitol, illuminating the interior with 4,750 individual bulbs.
Rotunda detail
Lest you think the people of Mississippi were unnecessarily overburdened by the cost of paying for such a majestic building, let the record show that the state's taxpayers were not asked to contribute a single cent.  As noted, the property was already in the hands of the state, and construction costs—a total of $1,093,641—were covered by funds awarded to the state from a lawsuit against the Illinois Central Railroad for back taxes.  Let's see what Mr. Link accomplished with this windfall.  (NOTE:  Though the statehouse had been through numerous "improvements" over the years, a major restoration to its original design was conducted from 1979 to 1982 at a cost of $19 million.  No word on who paid for that.)

The architect's astounding variety of materials and creative use of light, coupled with meticulous attention from the building's maintenance staff, give Mississippi a statehouse that offers one breathtaking view after another.  Even the utilitarian areas exude a stately air.

2nd floor corridor leading to former Supreme Court chamber
Marble walls and floors on the second floor are crowned with bronze capitals supporting the beautiful coffered ceiling.  Before they outgrew the space, the Supreme Court and state library were housed on the second floor.  Now both rooms are used for committee meetings.

Partial view of Rotunda (photographed from the fourth floor)
The centerpiece of the second floor is the rotunda, the crown jewel of Mississippi's Beaux-Arts treasure.  Link lavished the structure with light, both natural light from the dome and 750 of his electric bulbs to outline and highlight architectural elements.  The interior of the shimmering dome received its share of artificial light as well.  Four painted medallions depict scenes from Mississippi's history.

Capitol Dome from the rotunda
Grand staircase
Leading up from the second floor, the 'grand staircase' is typical of Beaux-Arts buildings.  What is surprising is the unusual use of decorative corbels.  Generally employed as a bracket for structural support, here the corbels are laid on their backs to form a sort of curlicued balustrade.  On the landing above are three stained glass windows representing Native Americans, Mother Mississippi, and pioneer settlers.
Memorial stained glass windows
The third floor houses the offices of the governor and lieutenant governor as well as the legislative chambers.  Legislators meet in semi-circular wings on either side of the building.  Twin glass saucer domes cap the two wings, allowing light into the chambers.  Each dome is a decorative masterpiece of classical mouldings and floral-themed Art Noveau stained glass.  Of course, Link employed his lights sumptuously here as well.

Dome of the Senate Chamber
These domes reign over elegant chambers with marble walls and no shortage of  decorations and embellishments.  Members of each house still use the original oak desks installed when the capitol was new in 1903. 

Senate Chamber
On this random Monday in July, long before the next legislative session opens in January, we found Rep. Steve Massengill, a freshman legislator from north Mississippi working at his desk in the House chamber.  Congenial and sincere, Steve took time to tell us about his first term as a lawmaker and to share some of his legislative goals (in particular, medical care for autism).

Can't get a safer office than this
Steve even shared an 'inside secret' about the Mississippi Capitol with us.  During the restoration project back in the 1980s, a wall was removed, revealing a safe that had previously been used by the state treasurer's office.  Intensive efforts to locate the combination failed, and renovation continued.  Fantasizing that something of value lay within, a few state employees began experimenting with different combinations during their lunch hour.  After many attempts, one day someone tried the right sequence and gawked in amazement as the safe door swung open.  No treasure was inside, but in the interest of maximizing space, the safe was repurposed as an office.

4th floor corridor
Our tour of the capitol ended on the fourth floor, which houses offices and the entrances to the public galleries of the legislative chambers.  Stained glass panels above mitigated the effects of a ceiling height much lower than those on the floors below.  The translucent glass floor tiles admit light to illuminate similar decorative ceiling coffers on the third floor.

Attention to detail was not neglected in the design of the exterior.  A bas-relief sculpture within the pediment features an allegorical representation of the agriculture, industry and arts of the state.
Pediment above the lofty Roman portico
Above the terra cotta dome sits a lantern topped by a symbolic eagle, cast in copper and gilded with gold leaf.  Facing the city, the eagle is eight feet tall with a wingspan of 15 feet.  Though the eagle is a popular American icon, only three other states have elevated the national bird to the top of their capitol buildings:  New Hampshire, West Virginia, and Idaho (which was heavily influenced by the Mississippi capitol).

No state capitol building we have seen (this was our #15) is more beautiful than the Mississippi statehouse.  In addition to its exquisite appearance, we found the Capitol a most hospitable place.  Upon our entry, Portia, the security guard on duty, greeted us and made sure we found a copy of the excellent self-guided tour brochure (and complimentary capitol dome lapel pin!).  As we departed, she said goodbye, shook our hands and thanked us for coming.  Her friendliness did not interfere with her professional screening of our bags and walk-through metal detector examination, but certainly made them seem less burdensome.

Kathy, the tour organizer on the first floor, was equally cordial, ensuring that we had all the information we needed and repeatedly offering to answer any questions we might have.  Like Portia and Rep. Steve and other random employees we encountered and conversed with, Kathy seemed genuinely proud of their statehouse, knowledgeable about its history, and eager to share information with visitors.

Like the interior, the grounds were scrupulously maintained and accessible.  Arriving before 8:30, we parked on the grounds next to the building a couple hundred feet from the entrance. 

As impressed as we were by the magnificent Mississippi State Capitol and our visit, we found one aspect a bit baffling.  Though there were subtle touches here and there (leaded glass elevator doors with an 'M' monogram, a mosaic M in a tile floor, brass doorknobs embellished with an M), there was very little in the capitol that was distinctively Mississippi.  Portraits of all the states' governors were hung in the halls on the first floor, but there was no statuary of famous citizens, either inside or on the grounds.  Even the marble niches in the rotunda, where busts of native sons and daughters are often displayed in other capitols, were empty.  When we asked Kathy what is usually housed there, she told us they're used for temporary exhibits that might include anything from bouquets of magnolia blossoms to portraits of Miss Mississippi titleholders.

The Old Capitol Museum, the state's official history exhibition, is closed on Mondays, so we were unable to visit today.  We're assuming the state's uniqueness is displayed there.
MONDAY, 22 JULY 2013
Mississippi Capitol Stats
  • Building height:  180 ft.
  • Building size:  242,500 sq. ft.
  • Construction cost:  $1,093,641
  • Cost to taxpayers:  $0
  • Construction period:  1901-03
  • Light fixtures:  4,750 (750 in rotunda)
  • Dome surface:  Terra cotta
  • Site size:  13 acres