Remember that saying, measure twice cut once? If you ever need remembering, just look at our State Capitol Building. The history of the Capitol is another one of those, only in Arkansas stories. It was initiated when part of the plaster ceiling collapsed at the Old State House and the legislatures decided they needed to begin funding a new Capitol building. The site chosen for the new building was the location of the Arkansas State Penitentiary, which lead all sorts of joke about sending the politicians to where they belonged. The plans that were picked were actually a proposed design for the Montana State Capitol Building that ended up not being used. The construction was slowed for years by a governor who thought it was a waste of tax payer’s money. And once progress was resumed by a new governor, he had most of the existing construction ripped out because he did not like the architect! But probably the most notable feature of the Capitol’s colorful past that is still visible today is the Capitol’s alignment.
Most people know that the Capitol is centered at the end of Capitol Ave. It’s a beautiful view from downtown to see the dome rise over the hill, through the canyon of towers downtown and framed by the trees. The building is one of a handful of important structures that offer a grand termination point to the streets downtown, like the Old State House and the Governor’s Mansion at either end on Center street of the tower of Union Station at the west end on Markham. But as you move closer to the Capitol building something starts to look a little off.
This is a shot standing between the 2 center columns of the Capitol, notice how the entry promenade curves to line up with the street?
Little Rock’s grid was based on the French model, which oriented the streets towards the riverfront rather than the compass points. This created the 9 degree shift that we have downtown today. The map below is from 1888. You can see the old downtown with the shifted grid as well as new subdivisions that had begun to spring up around the core, which were altered to be oriented towards the compass points. Even before this time, the state Penitentiary, which was started in 1839 and first used in 1842, was built on top of a hill to the west of town, overlooking the city below.
So the story goes, when George Donaghey, who had been appointed the Capitol Commissioner, was in charge of laying out the foundations of the building, the center axis of the building was to be centered on Capitol Avenue. The problem was, though the prison had been closed already, the prison walls were still in place at the time. This was to act as a sort of construction fence but also to allow the use of convict labor without worrying about convicts escaping. Since there was no clear view of Capitol Avenue and this being Arkansas, Donaghey just eyeballed it with the help of someone at the top of the wall. No surveying equipment of any sort was used. To Donagheys credit, he was pretty close. The center of the dome is only a couple of inches off the center axis of Capitol Avenue. The problem was he didn’t take in account the fact that the city grid was not oriented the same at the penitentiary walls. So construction on the Capitol began with a foundation oriented North South and it wasn’t until the prison walls finally came down halfway through the project, the builders began to realize the front door wasn’t going to line up with the street.
So remember, Measure twice, lay the foundation for the most prominent building in the state, once.
And dont forget to come visit our History of Little Rock Exhibit at Studio MAIN this Friday (April 12th 2012) from 5 to whenever.