ESSAYS:

The Capitol’s Family Tree

By Charles Hummel

Capitol Dome

Photo courtesy: Dennis Fetzer

The Idaho Statehouse as we know it today was the forty-fifth state capitol to be built in the United States. Only five other states have newer capitols—Washington, Oregon, Utah, Alaska, and Hawaii. With so many examples it’s reasonable to look at the origins of our capitol’s shape and style—its design family tree. In that tree there are thirty-five domed state capitols including ours. Among the fifteen without domes there are some whose shape and style are essential to the design of the rest. The significance of all of them, in the estimation of architectural historians, is that skyscrapers and capitols are America’s unique contribution to the monumental architecture of the world. Skyscrapers—which unite structure and function—capitols which function as symbols of democracy.

All of the states have capitols with similar histories beginning with their territorial capitols or colonial statehouses. What distinguished them in colonial times was the need to accommodate a royal governor and one assembly. After the adoption of the Constitution our colonial statehouses were obsolete. Their successors had to accommodate an elected governor and two assemblies. The floor plans for two occupants became floor plans for three. A three-part building form often resulted and was typical for many of the new capitols. The form itself began to be regarded as a symbol of the American system.

Virginia State Capitol

But there are important exceptions, particularly the Virginia Capitol built in 1785 with directions sent from France by Thomas Jefferson where he was America’s representative. It is a single rectangle with a gabled front portico supported on six Corinthian columns and a classical cornice. Its model was the Roman temple in Nimes known as the Maison Caree. Jefferson asked that it be called a capitol—not a statehouse like its colonial predecessor in Williamsburg. He was thinking of Rome’s Capitoline Hill, the seat of the ancient Roman Republic, with its connotations of civic duty and heroic virtue. Gabled and columned entry porticos and the decorations of classical Rome became symbols of the ideals of the American Republic. The United States Capitol and virtually every state capitol followed that convention.

Maryland State Capitol

The Maryland capitol in Annapolis is another significant exception to capitols with three-part facades. Construction was started by its rambunctious colonial assembly in 1774, two years before the Declaration, and continued building it during the Revolution until its completion in 1779. Its plan is a big square with two assembly rooms flanking a central area for the executive and a large entry and gathering space with stairs leading to the upper floor. The need for daylight in this large interior prompted the builders to construct an impressive octagonal wood tower with many windows above the gathering space and projecting it high above the roof of the second story. The volume and height of the tower’s open interior ringed with second floor balconies created an impressive space and attracted the attention of other designers. The exuberance of its design was completed with the later addition of a small dome topped by an accessible cupola surrounded by a viewing balcony.

The Maryland Capitol was built of brick and wood and it otherwise resembled the Georgian colonial style buildings built prior to the Revolution. The force of that interior space and its potential as a dome influenced the design of other capitols and eventually that of the United States Capitol.

Virginia State Capitol

The Massachusetts State House of 1795 was the product of Charles Bullfinch, a Boston aristocrat, who studied in Europe and England where he admired London’s recently constructed Somerset House which continues today as a government building. Prior to landing the Massachusetts commission he designed the Connecticut Capitol in Hartford which impressed the Massachusetts Commission but few of its features were used in Boston.

The plan of the Massachusetts State House is a shallow rectangle entered on the long side up a wide outside stairway to the elevated main floor. A two-story portico extends across half of the entry side. The main floor level of the portico is an arcade supporting an upper level terrace whose flat roof is supported on Corinthian columns. The building walls of the upper floors are smooth finely jointed stone. The masonry walls of the ground floor are rusticated. It is virtually the design of Somerset House.

Bullfinch topped off the Massachusetts State House with a large hemispherical wood dome which rises over a gabled attic set back from the building front. The main house of the Massachusetts legislature sits in grandeur below it. It is not quite as grand as the dome of the Roman Pantheon but the symbolic content is evident.

United States CapitolIn 1793 the design of the United States Capitol was awarded to an amateur architect whose work was supervised by three professionals, notably James Hoban, who designed the north wing in a style similar to contemporary English buildings. His design was a three- part plan with matching wings separated by a central rotunda. He was succeeded by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, a fully trained architect, who finished the north wing and started the south wing which was underway when it was destroyed in 1814 by the British in the War of 1812. Restoration was commenced by Latrobe but he resigned after a dispute with President Madison. The restoration and completion of the wings and the central rotunda was completed in 1830 under the direction of Charles Bullfinch. The design for the East Front of the rotunda with a wood dome was essentially that of his Massachusetts State House.

By 1850 it was evident that Congress and the Supreme Court needed more space. Thomas U. Walter was commissioned to design and supervise the addition of new north and south wings and an extension to the west. But Walter’s supreme achievement was the removal of the Bullfinch dome and its replacement in 1861 with the cast iron dome and its cupola with the figure of Liberty. By 1863 the Capitol was essentially completed as we see it today and Walter resigned in 1865.

Well before its final completion the United States Capitol became the great symbol of the Republic. Idaho’s Capitol was bound to be designed in its image. Of course it is considerably smaller than the Washington model but it has been noted that the proportions and details of the dome are closer to those of the national capitol than most of its predecessors. It also inherited the other symbols that came down through the family tree—the decorative details of the Classical Revival, the grand front stairs, the gabled entry portico supported on Corinthian columns.

They are important but the great achievement of its designers is the impact of the rotunda’s space with the soaring interior of the dome and the bright white and muted grays of its marble and scagliola. The Capitol is organized around its superb rotunda and it is truly a celebration of light.