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In August 1888, Harper’s Weekly published a scathing review of Indiana’s recently completed Statehouse, blaming the “sad failure” of its architecture on penny-pinching legislators who “ruthlessly sacrificed” architectural effect in order to keep the project within its $2 million appropriation.

Huh? I’ve spent most of my working life at the Statehouse, and the only sad failure I’ve ever found in the design is with the elevators. These remain as slow and unreliable today as they were in 1900, when the Statehouse custodian issued a public report complaining that the elevators were both “ancient and perplexing.”

An illustration of the Statehouse corridor from Harper's Weekly, August 11, 1888. It looks pretty much the same today.

Notwithstanding the elevator situation, I love the Statehouse. Granted, I’m from Kokomo, where two of our more prominent public monuments are a giant sycamore tree stump and an enormous stuffed steer, but that just proves you don’t have to be a high-brow to find beauty in the Indiana Statehouse. It’s not some grandiose relic of over-the-top Victorian architecture. Instead, the Statehouse was built as an office building for government workers, a meeting hall for state lawmakers, a public space for all Hoosiers, and an inspiration to anyone who takes a minute to gaze down the marble-lined collonade to the soaring rotunda. It is both quietly simple and awesomely magnificent.

Sadly, the man who designed this marvel never lived to see it built. Architect Edwin May died a few months before the dedication of the cornerstone on September 28, 1880. But even the laying of the cornerstone failed to lay to rest the controversy that had been swirling around the new Statehouse since old capitol began crumbling shortly after the Civil War.

Two rare views of the 1835 Statehouse from the collection of David Yount. The stucco-clad Greek revival building stood at the south end of the present Statehouse grounds, facing Washington Street. It was demolished in the late 1870s and hauled away for $250.

Although legislators had been complaining about the shaky foundation and deteriorating stucco since the early 1860s, the public finally realized that lawmakers weren’t playing Chicken Little when the ceiling collapsed in the House of Representatives in 1867. The legislature was out of session at the time and the damage was repaired, but the incident led to the creation in 1873 of a special legislative panel, the New Statehouse Committee.

As part of its review, the committee decided to solicit plans from various architects. In late 1874, the field was narrowed to four finalists: George Cooper of New Albany; Charles Eppinghausen of Terre Haute; John Johnson of Fremont, Ohio; and Elijah Myers of Detroit. Eppinghausen’s plan won with four votes, while Myers’ design was a distant runner-up with two votes.

Notwithstanding this temporary setback, Myers had already begun to gain political capital as a capitol architect with his winning design for the Michigan statehouse. He would later go on to design the statehouses in Colorado and Texas.

Although Detroit architect Elijah E. Myers failed repeatedly to win the Indiana Statehouse, he designed the state capitols for Colorado, Michigan and Texas (above), as well as the courthouse in Grant County, Indiana.

The New Statehouse Committee submitted its final report to the legislature in January 1875, recommending construction of Eppinghausen’s design. The two dissenting members issued a minority report in support of Myers’ plan. After the legislature failed to act on either recommendation, Governor Conrad Baker chastised lawmakers, telling them that “[t]his house is neither suitable or safe for the transaction of the public business”. The General Assembly finally decided to delegate the task of selecting a design to a newly created Board of Commissioners, and on March 14, 1877, the legislature voted to construct a new capitol, requiring the building to be “in keeping with dignity of the State” and constructed at a cost not to exceed $2 million.

The commissioners traveled to Lansing to meet with Myers and tour the Michigan statehouse. After taking additional junkets to view the statehouses in Illinois and Connecticut, as well as various courthouses, the panel took up consideration of the four designs named as finalists by the legislative study committee. Ultimately, all four were rejected as too costly, prompting the Commission to announce an open competition.

Twenty-four designs for a new capitol were submitted to the Commission and reviewed by a panel of experts. In order to ensure an unbiased process, each design received a name selected by the competing architects, whose identities were not disclosed to the reviewers. The actual entries have not survived, but a brief description of each plan is published in the Commission’s report, along with comments from the reviewing panel.

Edwin May's winning design for the Statehouse, as reproduced on the frontspiece of the booklet commemorating the cornerstone dedication.

As the commissioners were reviewing the designs, a scandal erupted that threatened to derail the project. In January 1878 the commissioners learned that Detroit architect Elijah Myers had received a letter from a person who claimed to have the authority to influence the Commission to select Myers’ plan. Although unsigned, the letter clearly bore the handwriting of Commission secretary W.C. Tarkington. The controversy deepened after allegations surfaced that Tarkington’s son-in-law, Orlan F. Baker of Vincennes, had approached Myers on a train bound for Lansing and offered to influence the selection for $1,500 to $2,000.

During a hearing on the charges, supporters of Tarkington maintained that it was a frame-up orchestrated by Myers, who had overhead the secretary saying that Myers’ stormy temperament and litigious reputation would make it impossible for the Commission to select his design for the new Statehouse. The commissioners were not swayed by this defense, and voted to dismiss Tarkington.

A few days later, Edwin May of Indianapolis was selected as the winning architect for his plan dubbed “Lucidus Ordo,” which is Latin for “a clear arrangement.” May’s design received four votes, while a competing design named “Phoenix” received one. Although Phoenix may have been a more majestic design, with three domes instead of one, reviewers found fault with the multiple waterclosets placed around the main rotunda that intercepted the light, as well as the numerous lobbies that darkened the corridors.

May had built a solid reputation as an architect for public buildings, designing the Northern Indiana Prison in Michigan City, the women’s building at the Hospital for the Insane in Indianapolis, and courthouses in Decatur, Allen, Knox and Hamilton counties. While to the less-cynical reader the challenge of designing a state capitol may seem to be far removed from the task of designing a prison or insane asylum, during the 19th century the latter were built with beauty as well as utility, as citizens took great pride in the government’s investment in the rehabilitation of prisoners and care for the less fortunate.

A one-page sheet from the early 1870s advertising May's expertise in jail design. I found this sheet at an antiquarian book show, where it had been disbound from an old business directory.

The selection of May’s design on March 22, 1878 immediately set off a firestorm of litigation. The first lawsuit was filed on April 1 by political foe Samuel Tibbetts, followed the next day with a lawsuit from A.J. York, a Chicago architect who was one of the designers of the Palmer House. While both of these lawsuits were quickly dismissed through the efforts of my predecessors in the law firm of Faegre Baker Daniels (then known as Baker Hord & Hendricks), more trouble lay ahead when Elijah Myers decided to go on the warpath.

Myers claimed in his lawsuit that the features of his design were incorporated into May’s plan by biased commissioners who favored the well-known local architect. A number of other local architects who had also failed to win the competition launched a media campaign in support of Myers’ lawsuit. An anonymous pamphlet aimed at discrediting the Commission and its selection process was distributed to all 150 members of the Indiana General Assembly. Around the same time, a number of subcontractors who had lost bids for construction began questioning the qualifications of the prime contractor and the quality of the materials. The House of Representatives launched a full investigation.

In an attempt to discredit the Commission's selection process, a group of disgruntled local architects circulated an anonymous pamphlet (right) to all 150 members of the legislature. After the Commission was vindicated by the courts as well as by various legislative panels, it shot back by giving legislators a handsome memento of the cornerstone dedication.

After receiving 1,600 pages of testimony, the House concluded in 1879 that the allegations were groundless. The following March, Myers lost his case. Construction on the Statehouse now was well underway, supervised by Adolph Scherrer, the architect tapped to replace May after his death in February 1880.

The cornerstone of the Statehouse was set on September 28, 1880 before a crowd of 6,000 people who were described by The Indianapolis News as “mostly ladies.” The program was both solemn and festive, featuring a lengthy oration by former Gov. Thomas Hendricks, a poem by Sarah Bolton, and the playing of the Anvil Polka. Among the items deposited in the cornerstone were hermetically sealed tubes containing 47 different varieties of cereal and seed grown in Indiana and a copy of the 10 Commandments written in English and Greek.

In his keynote address, Hendricks pondered whether the new capitol would stand the test of time. “Shall this structure, like the public edifices of the old world, outlive the institutions that produced it, and stand a witness of social convulsions and revolutions in government?” he asked, “Or shall it witness that stability of social order and political institutions that come of popular education, the love of justice, and constitutions founded upon the true principles of government?”

132 years later, Hendricks’ question still hangs in the air. But so far, so good. While the Statehouse has seen its fair share of “social convulsions” over the years, the worn marble columns that stretch from the floor to the dome have done a pretty good job of upholding the principles on which our government was built.

The Statehouse as pictured in the final report of the Board of Commissioners. The spittoons lining the corridor have long since disappeared, but otherwise the Statehouse looks the same.

8 responses to “Indianapolis Collected: There’s No Place Like Dome”

  1. basil berchekas jr says:

    I used to work for the Division of Planning, Department of Commerce, in a “basement” office to the right of the Capital Avenue entrance (going in the lower right-hand doors below the staircase. That agency has “morphed” into the Division of Community Development in the Department of Commerce…It’s located (I believe) at One North Capital Avenue now…The “basement” area of the Statehouse was rather nicely done when I worked there. The office where I was located, I understand, was for “years” a musty “museum” before it was converted to offices…

  2. John Ketzenberger says:

    Thanks Libby for the research. It helps me better understand the sense of awe I always–always–feel when I walk into that place.

  3. Libby Cierzniak says:

    Speaking from personal experience, it’s much better to feel awe when you walk into the Statehouse than to feel awful.

  4. John Creamer says:

    Very interesting. Interesting the arguments before Radio and TV. The state house makes our downtown! Thanks for sharing.

  5. James H. Johnson says:

    As a tour guide at the Indiana State House, I have the pleasure of sharing the beauty and history of the grand old building with hundreds of guests each week. It is a joy to see and hear the reactions of those who walk among the marble columns and see the stunning rotunda dome for the first time. From kindergardeners to senior citizens, the Capitol never fails to impress!
    Thank you so much for this wonderful article. What did Harper’s expect for under two million dollars – solid gold doorknobs? Their illustration is wonderful. Were there others in the magazine?

  6. basil berchekas jr says:

    Harpers Weekly deserves a scathing review lik e this…a good article! I’ve always been awed by the interior of the State House, and have been in there a number of times.

  7. Libby Cierzniak says:

    James, the only other illustration in the article was a drawing of the front of the Statehouse. The comments about the Statehouse were in a special section on Indianapolis. Harper’s did have a few nice things to say about the Statehouse. In particular, the article pointed out that tourists would duck into the Statehouse on hot summer afternoons to avoid the heat, spreading out their lunches in the Senate gallery, and that young couples would seek refuge from the heat in the cool marble halls.

  8. Anonymous says:

    4

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