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History Lesson: Happy Birthday to Ohio’s Statehouse

Doug Motz Doug Motz History Lesson: Happy Birthday to Ohio’s Statehouse
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Statehouse Centennial Bunting 1912. Image courtesy Columbus Dispatch.

Happy Birthday to our State House, which on November 15, 2011 will turn 150 years old! I think it is fair to make the argument that without Columbus being designated the Capital of Ohio on February 14, 1812, the development of our city would have proceeded very differently. In fact, it is possible that there would have never been a Columbus at all plotted here along the High Banks of the Scioto since the first choice of the Ohio legislature-appointed commission of 1810 to determine where the capitol should be located was actually on a tract 12 miles North of Franklinton owned by Peter and John Sells on the West bank of the Scioto in what would become Dublin.

Franklinton had already been ruled out as too prone to flooding, but Central Ohio pioneers Lyne Starling, James Johnston, John Kerr and Alexander McLaughlin, got together and made a deal the State couldn’t say no to when they offered to pay for the construction of the Statehouse and penitentiary in addition to gifting the acreage that would become Columbus.

There is also a widely circulated story that those backing the Sells lots and those backing the founding fathers of Columbus had a card game to determine where the state capital would be located and as the story goes, the 4 men arguing for the capital to be located on “Wolf’s Ridge” opposite Franklinton, won.

Statehouse sketch by Jacob Studer circa 1820.

That first State House , or “People’s House” as it is often called, was completed in 1816 and was constructed of stone and brick and located at the Northeast corner of State and Broad. (It is said that the bricks were made from the clay of the native American mound at Mound and High Street and may have actually contained skeletal remains.) The building had two-stories and a 106 foot tall steeple with a large bell that would be rung when the General Assembly was in session.

Interestingly, Columbus’ first Mayor – “Judge” Jarvis Pike, who was hired to clear the land around the State House, also raised corn and wheat on the grounds in 1815. He was a practical guy and erected a rough wooden fence to keep out the wandering pigs from Broad and High street out of his garden. He also filed suit against Thomas Worthington for monies the State owed him for his service going down in the history books as the first Mayor to successfully sue a seated Ohio Governor.

The years pass and Ohio experiences rapid growth. So much so, that in 1837, then Governor Jeremiah Moore spoke before the General Assembly and said” Our Present State Office buildings are not only inconvenient, but much exposed and liable to destruction by fire.” The legislature heard his plea and on January 26, 1838 passed legislation authorizing the construction of a new State House on the public green at Columbus.

Martin Thomas (Top) Henry Walter (Bottom) second and first prize sketches 1838.

A competition was held to design the new Capitol and 3 entries were chosen, each employing the simple and straight forward style known as Greek revival. However, the commission appointed by the legislature could not agree on a single winner and asked for help from New York architect Alexander Jackson Davis who was strongly influenced by painter Thomas Cole’s 3rd place entry.

Thomas Cole Statehouse Sketch on proposal April 10, 1838 New York State Library.

In 1839 a 12 foot fence was erected surrounding the grounds to prevent the prisoners from the Ohio Penitentiary who would excavate and lay the foundation of the new building from escaping. Shortly after this began, work ground to a halt due to a cholera outbreak, a heated campaign to move the capitol from Columbus and the legislature’s refusal to fund further work until it became clear if the capitol would remain in Columbus.

Statehouse circa 1916.

Columbus Historian Jacob Studer wrote in 1873 of the 1840 “Crusade Against Columbus”

There had been for some time a more or less ill-feeling, on the part of other towns in the central portion of the State, toward Columbus as the capital. She was accused of putting on metropolitan airs… Every conceivable objection was urged against the permanent location of the capital on the banks of the Scioto. The site was said to be the most unhealthy one that could have been selected in the whole State.

The 1839-40 Legislature then repealed the act allowing funds for the construction of the State House and it wasn’t until 1846 that a second act was passed that provided some appropriation for the continued construction. Work proceeded at a snails pace and in 1852, a suspicious fire destroyed the first state-house and added extra impetus to quickly complete the new one. In 1854, the acting architect of the project resigned and Nathan Kelly was hired. Although there were many influences on the design of the Statehouse, Kelly is most often credited as the primary architect.

By 1857, enough of the State House was completed for the legislature to convene for the first time in the new building. Then-Governor Salmon P Chase welcomed the legislature and had this to say of the magnificent new building:

“In simplicity of Design, in harmony of Proportions, and in massive solidity of structure, it stands, and may it long stand, a monument and a symbol of the clear Faith, the well-ordered institutions, and the enduring Greatness of the People whose House it is.”

In 1858 & 1859 the Cupola was completed as was the landscaping of the grounds and the interior gas fixturing. At this time Isaiah Rogers was appointed architect. Nathan Kelly had been fired as it was thought that his “florid” and “excessive” interior detailing still enjoyed today, were inappropriate and incompatible with the Greek revival exterior.

Statehouse circa 1870 (left) and Statehouse circa 1896 CHS (right).

Our Statehouse construction utilized the most advanced technology of the 1850s and many design innovations were built into the second-largest Capitol building in the nation – the U.S. Capitol being the largest – including indoor plumbing, interior light-wells and a central heating system. During a recent tour in preparation for this article, State House Communications Specialist Michael Rupert pointed out that there are no fireplaces in the Civil War era structure. It must have seemed fantastical to the citizens of that era to enter into the capitol during the winter and feel warm with no fireplaces! Instead, the basement had huge boilers that were fed during the cold months with piping attached that threaded throughout the building unseen delivering heat as if by magic.

Mark Twain’s favorite author and President Lincoln’s Ambassador to Venice, William Dean Howells, lived in Columbus in the 1850s and wrote of this in his 1916 auto-biography:

The dignity of the Senate chamber was a lasting effect with me, as in fact, the whole Capitol was. I seemed to share personally in it as I mounted the stately marble stairway from the noble rotunda or passed through the ample corridors. But the grandeur of the interior, which I enjoyed with the whole legislative body, was not more wonderful than its climate, which I found tempered against the winter to a summer warmth by the air rushing from the furnace in the basement through gratings in the walls and floors. These were for me the earliest word of the comfort that now pervades our whole well-warmed American world.`

The innovative interior plumbing and heating were not without their own problems. According to Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board Deputy Director Gregg Dodd,

“In 1876, an additional set of restrooms was added near the House Chamber. Accidentally, the restroom’s sewer ducts were connected to the building’s ventilation ducts. Over the next eight years, the air in the Statehouse, especially near the House Chamber, was particularly nauseating. Newspaper reports from the period refer to the stench and ensuing problems as State House Malaria. It was even reported that a representative from Washington Court House went home and died after session, and another had to go to Florida for his health after spending a winter in the Chamber. In November 1884, the problem was diagnosed, and 150 barrels of filth were removed from the ducts.”

State Room Statehouse Portrait Collection. Image courtesy Ohio Government Communications.

Finally completed on November 15, 1861 when the books were set into the shelving of the State Library, our Statehouse was finished with skylights in the massive rotunda that, Mr. Dodd states “are symbolically placed to remind the elected officials that the voice of the people shines down upon them while they are in Columbus representing the people’s views.”

Some other interesting facts about the statehouse include President-elect Abraham Lincoln receiving the telegram on February 13, 1861 in the office of Governor Dennison informing him that he had been elected President. In 1867 Governor Rutherford Hayes invested the building with the first Portrait Gallery honoring the Governor’s of the State. The ladies gallery in the House was “widened” after the crush of women in “hoop” skirts clamored to see Abraham Lincoln address the legislature in 1861.

The Statue that graces the Northeast corner of Statehouse Square entitled “These are my Jewels” (which was unveiled at the Ohio Pavilion during the World Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893) had one additional figure added when it was placed on the grounds. Governor William McKinley added Rutherford B Hayes, his commanding officer during the Civil War. Our martyred McKinley would get his own statue on the grounds after being assassinated himself at Buffalo New York in 1901. It was dedicated in 1906 by Alice Longworth Roosevelt and depicts him waiving to his wife across the street in their apartments at the former Neil House. The female figure seated on his left represents Peace and the male on the right, Prosperity.

Thank you Mr. Johnston, Mr. Kerr, Mr. Starling and Mr. McLaughlin for striking the deal that continues to shape how Columbus evolves and grows even today!

Special thanks to Gregg Dodd and Michael Rupert for all of their assistance.

It’s a Birthday Party! Mark Your Calendars for November 15.

November 15, 2011
10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Cake Cutting at 12 p.m.
Statehouse Rotunda

The Ohio Statehouse will com­memorate the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Ohio State­house with a birthday celebration open house and artists fair. The day of special events will feature Ohio artists, crafts and activities. The Capitol Artists Fair will include both contemporary crafters and arti­sans from every corner of Ohio. Ohio artists will display their own original work in the beautiful Ohio Statehouse.

It is a one-stop shopping extravaganza for central Ohio and Ohio Statehouse visitors. From glass, to jewelry, to pottery and paintings …it’s all together in one location with Ohio food and wine sampling, special dis­counts and door prizes! The day-long event will provide an opportunity for all Ohioans to learn about the important history of the Ohio Statehouse and the time period in which it was completed.

You’re invited to a special cake cutting ceremony at noon in the Ohio Statehouse Rotunda! Find out more at www.ohiostatehouse.org.

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