Legislative Column for the Week of Monday, May 6, 2013
Celebrating the 100-Year Anniversary of
Our Capitol's Groundbreaking

On May 6, 1913, exactly a century ago yesterday, a large crowd of citizens and officials gathered on a hill overlooking the Missouri River and broke ground on what would eventually become our current Capitol.

The second Capitol, constructed in 1840, had burned down two years earlier after being struck by a bolt of lightning. After that incident, many lobbied to move the capital away from Jefferson City, a city that, at the time, was viewed as too rural and unsophisticated to serve as the state’s capital. By a huge margin, though, voters approved a $3.5 million bond issue to construct the Capitol in Jefferson City.

Yesterday, I joined the governor and other state officials in celebrating the 100-year anniversary of our current Capitol’s groundbreaking. It was a wonderful event that recognized the importance of our State Capitol and what it symbolizes to the people of Missouri. During the ceremony, I gave the following speech commemorating the anniversary:

One hundred years ago today, a group of dignitaries that included Missouri Governor Elliott Woolfolk Major, a Democrat from Pike County, Missouri, and former governor Herbert Spencer Hadley, a Republican from St. Louis, along with representatives from the Missouri House and Senate, the Missouri Supreme Court, and the Jefferson City civic and business communities, gathered near the spot where we now stand, to break ground for this magnificent building that serves as the seat of government for all of us who call Missouri home.

The event was presided over by E. W. Stephens, a Columbia newspaper publisher and a Democrat who was the chairman of a four-member commission appointed to oversee the building of the new Capitol.  It was a bipartisan commission, composed of two Democrats and two Republicans. 

Lots of speeches were made on that occasion, the last one by Commissioner Alfred A. Speer, a former Missouri legislator and Jefferson City banker, and one of the Republicans on the commission.  By the time Speer spoke, the crowd was getting restless.  As the Jefferson City Daily Post-Tribune reported, “the crowd was becoming impatient to have the first shovel full of dirt lifted and the ceremonies over with.”  Finally, at noon on May 6, 1913, after two hours of speech making, Capitol Commissioner Theodore Lacaff, a German immigrant who achieved success as a building contractor in Fulton, Mo., placed his foot on a shovel and forced it into the ground, thereby launching the official “groundbreaking” that paved the way for the new building.  While sinking the shovel into the ground, Commissioner Lacaff proclaimed that he was “making history.”  Spectators in the crowd were just glad the speeches were over.  After turning the first shovel of dirt, by the way, Lacaff, returned the shovel to Chairman Stephens, who promptly handed it to First Lady Elizabeth Major, “with instructions she keep her husband [the governor] busy in the garden.”

The need for a new capitol, of course, was necessitated by the destruction of the old one on Feb. 5, 1911.  Lightning struck the dome of that building, which had been erected on what was then referred to as “Capitol Hill” in 1840.  Soon the building was engulfed in flames.  Inadequate fire protection equipment and the lack of a professional firefighting force in the capital city doomed the structure. 

Problems abounded in the effort to replace the old capitol with this building.  The problems began almost immediately after the fire.  First, there were many people who for years had wanted to move the permanent seat of government out of the City of Jefferson, a place that many regarded as too remote, too small, and, frankly, too unsophisticated for a State Capitol.  Those people saw a new opportunity in the wake of the fire, and they began to agitate to “remove” the capital from this city.  That movement was stifled in Aug. 1911, when a $3.5 million bond issue was passed overwhelmingly by Missouri citizens; that bond issue stipulated that the new Capitol must be built in Jefferson City. 

Passing the bond issue did not solve all of the problems.  After advertising the bonds widely, the commissioners soon learned that the bonds were not readily marketable, largely because of the low rate of interest they earned (3 1/12 percent).

Meanwhile, the remnants of the old Capitol structure had to be razed and removed from the area.  That challenge was met, in part, by enlisting the aid of convicts from the Missouri State Penitentiary, an action that greatly displeased labor unions.

Then there was the challenge of acquiring additional land so that the new building could be roughly three times the size of the old one, and so the Capitol grounds could be greatly expanded.  The state of Missouri wanted additional land to the east, west and south of the old Capitol grounds.  There was a street (Stewart Street) that ran between High Street and the old Capitol, parallel to High Street, right about where you are sitting, and a number of prominent citizens owned substantial homes on what is now the south lawn of the Capitol.  The City of Jefferson and the city’s business community, through its Commercial Club (forerunner of the modern-day Chamber of Commerce), worked together to facilitate the purchase of this additional land, so that the Capitol grounds could be expanded to approximately 17 acres.

There was the challenge of deciding what the new Capitol should look like, and how large it should be.  There was a proposal that it be “built in the Gothic style, like the parliament houses in Ottawa and London.”  Another proposal suggested that it be “a reproduction of King Solomon’s Temple.”  Eventually, the design of the new building was settled through a design competition.  There were 69 entries, with the winning entry being submitted by the New York firm of Tracy and Swartwout, although 15 years later, Egerton Swartwout, a partner in the firm that submitted the winning design, recalled that he had visited the Capitol grounds in July of 1912 and that it was so hot in Jefferson City at the time, that he privately hoped he would lose the competition so that he could leave the city and never return.  As he expressed it, “It was hot; and when Jefferson City decides to be hot it does it in a whole-hearted manner unknown elsewhere . . . .”

Early on, a decision was made by the commissioners that Missouri limestone would be used to complete the Capitol’s exterior.  That, of course, led to an effort to find a Missouri quarry that could produce a sufficient amount of high quality stone for such a large project.  An intense competition to secure this lucrative contract ensued. One of the most infamous proposals, one that was accompanied, frankly, by the offer of bribes, came from a southwest Missouri shyster who did not even own a working quarry!

Eventually, of course, the commissioners chose to use stone from my district, the so-called “Carthage White Stone,” or, “Carthage Marble.”  It was produced by the Carthage Superior Marble and Limestone Company.  One concern that emerged in early 1916 was that the “Carthage White Stone” would be tarnished and discolored by what the chairman of the commission called “The Smoke Nuisance” in the City of Jefferson.  In January 1916, he expressed the fear that “unless heroic measures are resorted to, the building will soon be smoked black from the numerous smokestacks in its vicinity and the Missouri Pacific [Railroad] engines.”  One irony here was that one of the worst offenders was the power house that supplied heat to the temporary Capitol and the Missouri Supreme Court building.

The finished product, completed in the summer of 1917, was this incredible building, the one that we are all so proud of.  I have always been struck by the fact that while the earlier Capitol, the one destroyed by fire in 1911, stood perpendicular to the Missouri River, this building faces south.  Those two different placements reflected the eras in which the buildings were built.  The earlier structure, completed in 1840, was placed so that it could be viewed by river travelers as they got off of boats at the foot of Jefferson Street, near the Jefferson Landing.  This building faces three major highways to the south:  U. S. Highways 50, 63 and 54, all of which then ran along modern-day McCarty Street.

Planners of the Capitol were so distressed by the hilly topography of the capital city, and the large number of structures that stood between the highways and the Capitol, that they suggested that a number of buildings on West High Street, south of the Capitol, should be torn down and that the street be lowered by several feet, so that automobile travelers to and through the capital city would have a better view of this magnificent structure.  This would, of course, have necessitated the destruction of a number of homes and businesses, not to mention the relatively new Missouri Supreme Court building, erected little more than a decade earlier!  In that same vein, the Missouri Pacific Railroad, which for years ran special excursion trains to Jefferson City at reduced rates so that Missouri residents could view their Capitol, considered rerouting the trains up the hill from the Jefferson Landing area, around the south side of the Capitol, and then back to the main track along the Missouri River, just so travelers could get a better view of the building!

It’s probably a good thing that neither of those ideas was implemented!  And yet, I can understand the pride that those people felt in this building, and their desire to show it off.  This building is, arguably, the most splendid and tangible public inheritance that has been passed on to us by our ancestors.  It is part of our patrimony.  It has been entrusted to us to use, but also to protect and to preserve.  It never ceases to thrill me to walk into this building; I can think of no more beautiful or meaningful place to work.

It is worth remembering, a century after the fact, that this building was made possible because members of both major political parties decided to come together and work for the good of the people they were elected to represent.  And the political leaders partnered with other civic leaders, and the business community, to achieve a goal that could never have been achieved without a unified approach.  This building, then, stands not only as a magnificent and timeless symbol of public architecture at its best; it reminds us that good people, regardless of their political beliefs, can work together to achieve worthy goals.  That alone makes this commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the groundbreaking of the “new” Missouri State Capitol worth celebrating.