Missouri Capital Under Contruction

A foundation that stands above the rest.  

The City of Jefferson is home to many beautiful and historical buildings. The Governor’s Mansion, the Warden’s House, West End Saloon, the Cole County Courthouse — these are just a few of the 44 locations in Jefferson City on the National Register of Historic Places. One of these has always stood out to me as a marvel not just on the local level, but on a national scale. 

Construction on the first state capitol building began in 1821 when Jefferson City was established specifically to serve as Missouri’s capital. That first capitol was a two-story brick building that measured about 40 feet by 60 feet. In 1837, it burned down, along with all state records up to that time. Before the first capitol burned down, our state government had already begun to outgrow it, and a new, larger capitol building was already under construction.

The second capitol building, completed in 1840, was built in the classical revival style. The building was expanded in the 1880s and was used until the night of February 5, 1911. The dome of that second Capitol building was sheathed in a thin coating of copper. While beautiful, it was also, of course, a natural conductor for electricity, and lightning struck the dome. The building’s internal support beams were wooden, and a fire raged throughout the interior after the strike. Fire brigades were unable to save the second Capitol, even with firefighting equipment being brought to the site by fast train. This time, however, volunteers managed to get many state records out of the building.

After the fire, an immediate effort began to relocate the state capitol. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran the front-page headline “Make St. Louis the Capital.” Several other towns across the state put forth plans to try to move the capital, but in August 1911, the state legislature put forth a bond issue of $3.5 million for the construction of a new capitol building in Jefferson City. The measure passed by a margin of almost 4 to 1. In Cole County, the vote was reported as 5,000 for and 14 against. That brings me to my favorite building here in Jefferson City.

Construction on the third capitol building began in 1913, designed by the New York architects Egerton Swartwout and Evarts Tracy. However, the $3.5 million bond issue miscalculated revenue, resulting in a $1 million surplus. The state legislature pondered using this money for other purposes, but the state attorney general issued a decision that all money collected for the capitol building had to be used on the capitol building. This windfall resulted in what would turn out to be one of, if not the most, beautiful state capitols in the country. 

“One of these has always stood out to me as a marvel not just on the local level, but on a national scale.”

Mike Bernskoetter

This new capitol was directed to be a “Missouri-made” building, and materials from Missouri were used in every possible instance. The granite for the walls and floors were quarried from Carthage marble. Missouri hardwoods were used throughout the building. A five-person committee was convened to decorate the building and hired some of the most prominent artists of the day to provide paintings, stained glass, and sculptures to beautify the building. A 9,000-pound bronze chandelier hangs from the dome, surrounded by Frank Brangwyn paintings. I still find myself often walking by a painting I’ve never noticed before, tucked away in a portico or over an elevator door.

Statuary, fountains, and memorials dot the grounds outside the building, and the Missouri State Museum occupies the first floor. It is almost impossible to be here and not feel reverence for the struggles and triumphs of our past. The art in the capitol building has been added to since it was first built. The famous Thomas Hart Benton mural in the House Lounge was painted in the mid-1930s and was controversial when first completed. It is said that a glass plate was installed by the door because legislators, unhappy with depictions in the mural, would light their matches on the painting as they walked in. There’s also a story that when Tom Pendergast, an infamous Kansas City power broker depicted in the Benton mural, was convicted of income tax evasion, someone snuck in and painted his prison numbers on the back of his suit.

Today, though, the mural is recognized as a masterpiece and is perhaps the most celebrated work of art in the building. I love Jefferson City and all it has to offer. But if I had to pick one place to call my favorite, it would be our capitol building. It is beautiful, functional historic, and one of a kind.

Mike Bernskoetter