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Saturday, June 23, 2012

A Shared Design Legacy - The Texas and Michigan State Capitol

Michigan State Capitol,
June 1, 1999 (Photo by author).
Texas State Capitol,
May 23, 2012 (Photo by author).

Elijah E. Meyers (1832-1909), a native of Springfield, Illinois, designed numerous county courthouses, including a massive one in Carlinville, Illinois, prior to building the Michigan State Capitol between 1872-1878. Other Capitol buildings that Meyer designed include the Idaho Territorial Capitol, built between 1885 and 1886, the Colorado State Capitol, built between 1887 and 1908, and the Texas State Capitol, built between 1882-1888. We'll go about comparing the Michigan Capitol and the Texas Capitol to discern similarities and differences between these two remarkable buildings.

Location and Plan
While Lansing and Austin share many similarities - being the state capital, presence of a major research university (Michigan State University and the University of Texas respectively), and a number of related businesses, activities, and events generated by these factors - there are clear and obvious differences between the two places and the Capitol Building in each one. Lansing is less developed and with a smaller population of approximately 114,000 people in the city and 464,000 people in the metropolitan area, as opposed to Austin which has approximately 790,000 people in the city and 1.7 million people in the metropolitan area.

The Michigan State Capitol Building may be approached via East Michigan Avenue. This major thoroughfare is laid out as part of the gridiron plan of Lansing that is aligned with the four cardinal directions. Approaching the Capitol building from the east, one crosses Grand River two full city blocks before approaching the Capitol itself. Austin is laid out on a somewhat grander scale. While also organized around a gridiron plan, this is rotated approximately 22.5 degrees clockwise, to orient the city just off of due north. In Austin the Capitol is aligned facing Congress Avenue and accessible nine full city blocks north of the Colorado River.

Now that we understand the location of the two buildings, we can now shift to discussing their plan. The Michigan Capitol is 420 feet in length and 267 feet in height. Comparatively the Texas Capitol is 566 feet wide by 288 feet high. The United States Capitol building reaches to a height of 289 feet for comparative purposes. The plan of both buildings is very similar with wings radiating from a central dome that anchors the whole composition. The legislative chambers are aligned to the east and west in both buildings, while the Governor's office representing the executive branch is to the north. 
Michigan Capitol Plan, Third floor (Kathryn Bishop Eckert, Buildings of Michigan, 1993, p. 292)

Texas Capitol Plan, Ground floor (The Texas Capitol: A Self-Guided Tour)
Architectural Features
The Michigan Capitol is noted as "one of the nation's best surviving examples of civic architecture displaying the decorative painted arts of the Victorian period." The same source goes on to note that the "Woodgraining, stenciling, striping, glazing, gilding, freehand painting, and the use of metallic paints were employed to provide rich embellishment." The decoration in the Texas Capitol is somewhat restrained when compared to its Michigan counterpart. The decorative arts on display in full force in the Texas Capitol. Near the entrance to the rotunda the sculptures of Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston by sculptor Elisabet Ney were unveiled on this spot on January 19, 1903.

Polychromatic painting, decorative
features, and milled wood in the
Michigan Capitol (Photo by author).
Simply painted white columns and
comparatively restrained detail
in the Texas Capitol (Photo by author).

The floor beneath the dome of the Michigan Capitol is covered in a metal grid with inset glass block. Originally the Texas Capitol had a similar feature, though this was covered over by a terrazzo floor with the Texas Great Seal surrounded by the six seals of countries whose flags have been flown over Texas at different times. This new floor was installed in 1936 to celebrate the Texas Centennial. Interestingly, the metal grid remains beneath to support the glass block floor, though it was felt unwise to touch the terrazzo floor during the most recent restoration attempt in the 1990's.

View downward of the Michigan Capitol rotunda,
with the glass block floor at ground level (Photo by author).

The legislative chambers of the Michigan and Texas Capitol provide probably the most stark differences. The Michigan House chamber is decorated in terra cotta and teal colors, whereas the Michigan Senate chamber is decorated in blue and gold. Behind the chair of the House speaker in Michigan is a plaster and paint version of the state coat of arms. In Texas the House speaker has a fragment of the flag from the decisive battle of San Jacinto behind him. Texas has a comparatively restrained color palette of many whites and off-whites. Hardly the profusion of color that Meyers prescribed in Michigan.

The ceiling of both the House and Senate chambers in Michigan has glass panels with the coat-of-arms for each state in the United State. These help to better light the room below. And while Texas tour guides relish on pointing out how the original glass ceiling panels in Texas were ill adapted to the climate and allowed heat and light to stream in, one wonders whether Meyer called for similar glass panels with the seal of each state as opposed to the plain glass panels that were originally installed?

Panorama of Texas State Senate Chamber (Photo by author).

Panorama of Texas State House Chamber (Photo by author).
At the apex of the brightly colored Michigan Capitol dome is a deep blue field painted with bright gold stars. The Texas dome by comparison is surmounted by a massive star in the center that is eight feet from point to point. This star was installed in 1958 approximately 218 feet above floor.

View upwards toward the dome in the Michigan Capitol (Photo by author).
Restoration Efforts
In 1991 the Capitol Oversight Committee of the Michigan governor and legislature undertook a full restoration of the Michigan Capitol under the direction of Architect Richard Frank. Special efforts were made to restore the richly colored High Victorian decorative interior painting to surprising effect.

The Texas Capitol underwent a similar restoration during a similar period of time. Between 1990-1995 the Texas Capitol Preservation and Extension Project returned the building to its 1888-1915 appearance and updated the safety and mechanical systems. An Extension was built to the north housing the Senate and House offices, a gift shop, cafeteria, hearing rooms, auditorium, and two levels of staff parking.

These two buildings are united in the fact they are both part of the design legacy of Elijah E. Meyers. After building the Michigan State Capitol Building, this served as a model that many other states followed. While the Texas State Capitol shed some of the ornament of its northern counterpart, its massiveness extended earlier design concepts by Meyers on an even grander scale. Both stand testament to the deeply felt importance of beauty and gracefulness in civic buildings. Few buildings like these exist anywhere else in the world. To this day countless people who pass through are indebted to Meyers and the public officials who oversaw construction and continued maintenance of these impressive structures.

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