Lansing’s landmark, the graceful dome of Michigan’s capitol building, doesn’t seem all that unusual today, when the majority of statehouses are topped with a variation on the theme. But in 1871 when architect Elijah E. Myers was designing the Renaissance Revival structure with its cast iron dome, the concept of a state modeling its seat after the United States Capitol was novel. Thanks to Myers, the idea caught on in other states including Texas and Colorado, where his similarly-crowned capitols were built in 1888 and 1907, respectively.
The design is something we take for granted, says Michigan’s Capitol Historian and Curator Valerie R. Marvin, but when put into perspective, its significance is better understood. Myers first started working on the project only five years after the Civil War ended; construction began in 1873 and it was dedicated on January 1, 1879. “It was designed to pay homage to the national Capitol. It was our way of showing our allegiance to the nation,” explains Marvin. With the flurry of post-war capitol building construction and renovations, “People came (to Lansing) from all over the country to see it, it was considered to be such a success.”
The permanent capitol building is the third structure to house the state’s government functions. Detroit was the capital city from statehood in 1837 until 1847, when the legislature moved the seat to a more central location better-suited to serving the growing state. For 32 years, a small, wood framed structure was the temporary Capitol, until Myers was given a budget of $1.2 million and the directive to avoid “superfluous ornamentation” in the design of the current statehouse.
The architect’s brick and sandstone structure with a 267-foot-high dome was chosen for its price tag and simplicity—that being a relative term when looking at 19th- century architecture 140 years later. The Capitol is recognized as a National Historic Landmark for its dazzling Victorian decorative arts, consistently a source of wonder for visitors, says Marvin. “So many buildings that you go into today are white. People are amazed by the riot of color. We have nine-and-a-half acres of hand-painted art, and no two places are alike.”
Budget-conscious Myers fooled the eye with painted pine woodwork that looks like the desirable but pricey walnut, and cast iron Corinthian columns with faux marble finish. It is, according to an official description, a “masterpiece of craftsmanship rather than merely a showcase for expensive materials.”
The architect went a bit over budget, spending nearly $1.5 million filling every inch with carved wooden doors, ornamental moldings, etched glass, painted and stenciled ceilings and walls, and black and white Vermont marble floors. Gas-lit chandeliers that were wired for electricity in 1899-1900 feature the elk and shield from the state’s coat of arms. Doorknobs and hinges also bear the emblem.
The elegant, 160-foot high rotunda at the heart of the building is best viewed as school kids do on class trips: by lying on the lit-from-below glass block floor. But the elaborate dome is just as beautiful from an upright position at the base, or upper balconies that circle the soaring space. Original, Michigan-made furniture fills the Governor’s (now mostly ceremonial) office. The House and Senate Chambers are similar in design, with crystal chandeliers, coffered ceilings and natural skylights, but the House is painted in terra cotta and teal, and the Senate is silver and blue.
“Victorians loved color,” says Marvin. “They loved ornamentation and believed a beautiful environment would inspire everyone to do their best. It elevates the whole tone of the building, for those who work there and visitors, as well.”
That beauty was preserved during an extensive renovation from 1988-1992, and with the installation of a geothermal field and improvements to the physical plant underway, the structure will be more efficient and environmentally sound. An exterior overhaul in 2014-16 included recreating and replacing ornamentation that had been lost, says Marvin. “We believe the dome is in its most complete state since it opened.”
Photo by Ike Lea
This article originally appeared in the 2019 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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