Rich stories surround a magnificent outdoor art collection at Missouri’s State Capitol.
Want to mingle with Lewis and Clark, pose for pictures with the Founding Fathers or enjoy a picnic lunch in the shadow of Lady Liberty—all in one afternoon? Chances are, you already have.
The place for such an experience can be found at the gardens and grounds surrounding the Missouri State Capitol where there is an outstanding collection of fountains, monuments and memorials.
What many do not realize is that each fountain, statue and decorative element was carefully selected and placed in an effort to visually harmonize and complement the building’s classic architecture. Every piece has a unique history of its own, and perhaps the most interesting story of all is how this rich collection came to be.
The Capitol Decoration Commission, made up of four men and one woman, was appointed by Governor Frederick D. Gardner in 1917 to oversee the decoration of the interior and surrounding areas of the newly constructed Capitol. The group worked tirelessly for the next 11 years selecting 33 artists, who created more than 125 works of art. The amount spent, one million dollars, which was a quarter of the cost of the building itself, was the result of surplus revenue generated from the special Capitol construction tax levy. For this reason, the Missouri State Capitol is one of the most richly decorated in the country.
THE RIVER SIDE
The north grounds, or river side, is dominated by a central plaza overlooking the Missouri River. At its center is the fanciful Fountain of the Centaurs (Adolph Weinman), a large oval-shaped pool dominated by a pair of massive serpent-wrestling centaurs juxtaposed against frolicking roguish sea urchins. These figures were originally created for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the San Francisco World’s Fair, which were regrettably destroyed after the exhibition ended.
Fortunately, the artist retained a duplicate set of plaster models, which were purchased by the Commission, cast in bronze and reconfigured into the fountain that exists today.
The Signing of the Treaty (Karl Bitter) offers a composed counter balance to the mythological fancy of Weinman’s centaurs. Located directly north of the fountain, the massive bronze relief began its life as a plaster rendering of the Louisiana Purchase and was originally displayed in an another World’s Fair, the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, held in St. Louis. The signers depicted are future President James Monroe, United States Ambassador to France Robert Livingston, and French statesman Francois Barbe’-Marbois. Unknown to most, its plaster predecessor was displayed in the first-floor rotunda of the Capitol before it was ultimately cast in bronze and permanently installed as part of the north plaza retaining wall.
It is a fortunate quirk of history that the commission, perhaps with an eye on cost, reclaimed two contrasting works from two world’s fairs of the past century and immortalized them at Missouri’s statehouse.
THE SOUTH SIDE
The south side of the Capitol is often mistakenly referred to as the front of the building when in fact, it has two fronts. Although the north side of the building faces the Missouri River and parallel railroad tracks, today’s highway system and city street layout has rendered the south elevation as a visitor’s first view. This is also where the honorable Thomas Jefferson sculpture resides. Renowned sculptor James Earl Fraser was commissioned to produce three heroic-sized sculptures. Two of them, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, reside in relative obscurity inside the building. But the placement of Thomas Jefferson, front and center on the south steps of the Capitol, presents a terrific photo opportunity. Mr. Jefferson stoically poses upon his granite perch while maintaining a perpetually serene gaze directed upon the city that was named in his honor.
Flanking Jefferson at the base of the south steps are two colossal bronze figures representing our state’s two great rivers. The “Mother of the West,” the Missouri River, is represented by Ceres, the Roman goddess of grain and agriculture. The “Father of Waters,” the Mississippi River, is a male figure holding the scepter or magic staff of Hermes and is the god of commerce and travel. Both are creations of sculptor Robert Aitken, who also produced the two fountains located on the south lawn.
The Fountain of the Arts and The Fountain of the Sciences are positioned on either side of the central approach to the Capitol. The east fountain, The Sciences, represents geometry, geology, chemistry and astronomy with figures clenching corresponding instruments including a compass, a test tube, an astrolabe and a sphere. To the west, The Arts represents architecture, sculpture, painting and music with figures holding a chisel, mallet, palette, paintbrush and harp. During warmer months, both fountains are surrounded by a riot of seasonal tulips in the spring, begonias in the summer and chrysanthemums in the fall.
Jefferson City is truly fortunate to have such an abundance of beauty and art in its downtown corridor. The next time you are near the Capitol, take a moment to stop by and experience perhaps a greater appreciation for these painstakingly planned works of outdoor art. You’ll be glad you did.
Dana Miller serves as the current chair of the Missouri State Capitol Commission.
Sources: Report of the Capitol Decoration Commission, 1917-1928, John Pickard; Art of the Missouri Capitol: History in Canvas, Bronze and Stone, Bob Priddy and Jeffrey Ball, 2011. Part II of this series will provide an overview of the memorials and more recent monuments installed the Capitol grounds.