This week, Georgia legislators kick off their annual huddle under the Gold Dome. I'll leave it to others predict the session ahead, and take a look at the Dome itself. Turns out the Georgia State Capitol offers a cautionary case study on political grandstanding and cheapness.
Before the Capitol-with-an-O was erected, Atlanta had to secure its position as Georgia’s Capital-with-an-A. In the earliest days of Georgia statehood, Savannah served as the capital city. For the next century, the statehouse hopscotched all over, with five cities designated official capitals and other locales serving as temporary meeting places for politicos, as this handy timeline from the Digital Library of Georgia, reveals:
1780-81 Heard's Fort*, miscellaneous sites in Wilkes County
1782 Ebenezer*, Savannah
1784 Savannah, Augusta
* Temporary meeting place
How did Atlanta snag and hold on to capital city status? The same way Atlanta has done everything: bold boosterism and brash promises. Civic leaders first tried to lure lawmakers from Milledgeville to Atlanta in the 1840s, only to be resoundingly defeated by a General Assembly vote. Atlanta then made a bid to be capital of the Confederacy; rebuffed again. The city’s lucky break came during Reconstruction, when Federal overseers opted to set up shop in Atlanta, in large part because of the city’s rapid post-war redevelopment, and in even larger part because Milledgeville hoteliers refused to house African-American delegates.
After Reconstruction, Georgia lawmakers pushed for a return to Milledgeville, a sentimental favorite untainted by collaboration with Yankees. Atlanta leaders went to lawmakers with a proposition: They’d fund construction of a capitol building to match the old statehouse in Milledgeville and throw in ten prime acres in the center of town. Deal, said the lawmakers. But just give us a nice temporary space and we’ll build a bigger, grander capitol. So lawmakers worked in the former Kimball Opera House. (In an interesting aside, the Kimball was embroiled in shady real estate dealings that almost put the kibosh on Atlanta’s bid entirely. Long story short: city fathers stepped in to pay off a hidden mortgage, keeping capital city designation for the ATL.)
After making do in the opera house for two decades, Georgia lawmakers were ready (and state coffers replenished after the Civil War’s economic devastation) to build a state capitol from the ground up. In September 1883, they passed an appropriation for $1 million to fund construction of a building to be overseen by a commission including the governor. They set a deadline of January 1889 and stipulated that the structure would be “built of granite, rock and marble, as far as practicable, and all the materials used in the construction of said building shall be those found and procured within the State of Georgia; provided that same can be procured in said state as cheaply as other materials of like quality in other states.”
A national design competition was held, with the winning entry by Chicago architects Franklin Burnham and Willoughby Edbrooke. In another blow to state pride, the construction contract went to low-bidder Miles and Horn, of Toledo, Ohio. To stick within budget, Miles and Horn decided the exterior of the building would have to be constructed of Indiana limestone, not Georgia marble or granite. It was cheaper to ship quarried stone from the Hoosier state because Georgia didn’t have the manufacturing infrastructure to crank out the needed materials. A short-lived campaign by Atlanta quarry owner Marcus Bell, claiming limestone was not a solid building material, was briefly supported by the Atlanta Constitution. To quash controversy, the capitol commission issued a report vouching for the structural integrity of limestone and underscoring the budget constraints that necessitated using it. (In a concession to local pride and geology, Georgia marble was selected for interior finishes, including wainscoting, tiles, lavatories, and staircases — one-and-a-half acres in total.)
As construction went on, the commission went back to the drawing board — literally — to cut out pricey extras such as exterior carvings and interior finishes. According to Democracy Restored, a fascinating history of the capitol by Anne Farrisee and Tim Crimmins, the statue atop the capitol dome was most likely ordered from a catalog. “Miss Freedom” is made of molded metal, painted white to look like a marble carving. (There’s also a rumor that Miss F. was not just a mail-order icon, but also sloppy seconds, originally ordered for the Ohio capitol.)
In the biggest cost-cutting effort of all, the capitol dome was not constructed of stone or finished with gold leaf, but crafted of wood, covered in metal, and painted gold. The scrimping was not apparent when the capitol opened in March 1889 – three months behind deadline and $118 under budget. Harper’s Weekly called the Georgia Statehouse the “best million-dollar edifice in America.”
Six decades later, the corner cutting haunted a new generation of lawmakers in the form of water seeping through the wood-and-metal dome. In 1958 the leaky dome got a new limestone base and a coating of asphalt and cement. The dome was then covered in tiny metal plates and finished off with gold leaf – dramatically delivered from Dahlonega by wagon train. The electric wires to light the torch in Miss Freedom’s hand were finally installed. (The trek from Dahlonega was repeated two decades later, when gold leaf flaked off the 1950s dome.)
While the leaks were fixed, the capitol’s descent into shabbiness continued, thanks to a series of questionable Mid-Century design choices (acoustic ceiling tiles, flourescent lights, icky paint colors, foam insulation) and a century of grime. In 1993, lawmakers established a new capitol commission, and a restoration project was started, running into tens of millions of dollars and taking more than a decade. In 2005, Miss Freedom was taken to Canada, given a facelift, and lowered back onto her golden perch by helicopter.
The Kimball building. Designed as an opera house, it served as Georgia’s capitol for two decades. Negative copy. Courtesy Georgia State University Special Collections.
Aerial view of the State Capitol and Downtown, 1950. Courtesy Georgia State University Special Collections.
Wagon trains bringing gold from Dahlonega to Atlanta, 1959 and 1979. Courtesy Digital Library of Georgia.