The Kansas Capitol in Topeka is one of the most beautiful State Capitols in the country. It was constructed over a period of 37 years, from 1866 to 1903, at a total cost of $3.2 million.
The state government of Kansas has been based in Topeka since the year that Kansas became a state, 1861. The first capital of Kansas was Fort Leavenworth, where territorial governor Andrew Reeder had his headquarters. Other state capitals during the territorial period were Shawnee Mission, Pawnee, Lecompton, Minneola, Leavenworth and Lawrence. Some of those towns served as the capital several times - the capital changed whenever the territorial leaders decided to move it.
Kansas became a state January 29, 1861. In November of that year an election was held to decide on a capital and Topeka was selected over Lawrence and several other cities. In later years there were several attempts to move the capital to a more central location, but none came close to succeeding.
The Cornerstone to the East Wing was laid October 17, 1866. After several setbacks in construction the wing was finished in 1873. Today the east wing houses the Senate Chamber. Work began on the West Wing in 1879 and the House of Representatives met in the new wing for the first time in 1880. The central domed section was authorized in 1881, and work began in 1885. All structural work on the Capitol was finished by 1903.
Capitol Square consists of twenty acres donated by Cyrus K. Holiday and accepted by the legislature February 7, 1862. The legislature then authorized E. Townsend Mix's building design of French Renaissance architecture with Corinthian composite details.
The Board of Statehouse Commissioners on March 26, 1866 approved a resolution which provided that the “wings of said building project east and west from the central building and that the construction of the east wing be commenced...immediately...” No sooner had the appropriation been made than there was a controversy among those desiring to furnish materials. It was decided to use a brown sandstone, obtained from the bluffs along Deer Creek, near Vinewood, in Shawnee County.
The East Wing
The Cornerstone was laid October 17, 1866. It was yellow limestone placed in the northeast corner of the building (now east wing). According to one, the stone "...under the skillful manipulation of the workmen, presents a beautiful appearance..." The Topeka Weekly Leader described the ceremony as a "day to be long remembered for the pleasing associations which cluster around it, for it marks another milestone in Kansas history which passers-by will read years hence when we shall have shuffled off this mortal coil and have gone down into that bourne from whence no traveler returns."
The foundation was erected, but because of both a severe winter and the fact that this sandstone was a form of shale, it had crumbled to a mass of mud by 1867. One source opined, "two emanate scientists had approved it for building material, but they got their eyes opened when protests began pattering about their heads like hail on a tin roof.... It cost the state $40 000 to put in this foundation and a like amount to take it out.” The sandstone foundation was replaced by limestone from Geary County, Kansas. Some newspapers suggested that “the cornerstone crumbled because the names of state officials had been chiseled into it.” Its location was unknown until uncovered by major building repairs in 1950.
In December, 1869 the state officers were moved from Old Constitution Hall, now 427-429 Kansas Avenue, and the legislature of 1870 met in the new Capitol. The Senate and the House of Representatives both met in the hall, now used as a Senate Chamber, with a wall dividing the room. The East Wing was completed in 1873.
Capitol Square stood well out over the edge of a great prairie in the 1870's. A stone fence was built for protection against the village cows and other animals. As Topeka grew there was a clamor for the removal of the “unsightly stone fence.” Citizens insisted is should be replaced with an “up-to-date fence,” so a “five-board pig tight fence” was constructed around Capitol Square (see photo, bottom edge).
On April 22, 1875, Topeka mayor T. J. Anderson proclaimed Kansas Arbor Day. Topeka citizens responded by planting approximately 800 trees on Capitol Square. Regrettably, however, most died that summer. Droughts and tornadoes also caused damage, and little survived from the Mayor's efforts.
The West Wing
The Board of Statehouse Commissioners was recreated in 1879 and work was started on the west wing. The legislature made an appropriation of $60,000 and provided a one-half mil levy for west wing construction.
The west wing is architecturally similar to the east wing, except it is four feet wider and six feet longer. The limestone used was from Cottonwood Falls, Kansas. By 1880 this wing was enclosed. The House of Representatives met in the new hall, although "it was unplastered and ... had ... a temporary roof." A covered bridge, referred to as the "Cave of the Winds" was built from the Senate to the House for messages to be taken from one to the other.
The cost of the west wing was about $3,000,000 compared to $500,000 for the west wing. The lower cost of the newer west wing was attributed to the depreciation of the currency after the Civil War.
The 1881 Legislature authorized the construction of the central portion of the Capitol and appropriated additional funds for the completion of the west wing. Also during that session approval was given to the Topeka Library Association for construction of a building on the northeast corner of Capitol Square. The Topeka Library was dedicated April 20, 1883, and was in use until 1953. The building was razed in 1961.
Work began in 1884 on remodeling of the Senate Chamber and construction of the central portion of the building. The excavations for the foundations, which support the dome, extend more than 25 feet into the ground, to a bearing strata of bedrock. Workmen doing the excavation discovered a spring in the rock. This natural spring still flows beneath the capitol. The contract for roofing the main building and dome was let in May of 1880. After work began a crack in the main arch of the north entrance developed. The crack, caused by differences in the initial settlement of the foundations, was repaired by May of 1889.
Photo of the dome from inside the capitol. Looking straight up from the middle of the first floor, the viewer sees the inside of the Capitol dome. In the foreground is a flag display depicting the six different countries that have claimed Kansas land throughout history. Featured are: a flag of England (1497-1763); a French fleur-de-lis flag (1682-1762); a flag of the French Republic (1800-1803); flag of Mexico (1821-1836); and Spain (1492-1821); the flag of the Texas Republic (State of Texas after 1845) (1836-1850); the 34-star United States flag, symbolizing the admission of Kansas to the Union as the 34th state; and the 1927 Kansas flag.
The House Chamber
Marble in the House of Representatives is from Tennessee. Wainscoting on the east wall is made of many kinds of imported marble trimmed with Italian Carrara. Panels of Borcelian marble with Belgian black marble are in the base of the columns. Several pieces of marble in the east wall are of jasper and a variety of quartz, mentioned in the Bible - “walls of jasper and streets of gold”. The Speaker's stand is made of walnut surmounted with hand-carved urns of solid walnut.
John Steuart Curry's "Tragic Prelude"
Centered on the north wall of the east wing is the gigantic figure of John Brown. In his outstretched left hand is the word of God, and in his right hand a "Beecher Bible" (better know as a rifle). Flanking him, facing each other, are contending free soil and proslavery forces, and at their feet, two figures symbolic of the 1.5 million Civil War dead and wounded. In the background are the pioneers with their wagons on the endless trek to the west and the tornado and the raging prairie fire, fitting symbols of the destruction of the Civil War. This mural (31 feet by 11.5 feet) expresses the fratricidal fury that first flamed on the plains of Kansas, and served as the prelude to the Civil War.
One of the more famous reproductions of this mural is located at Harper's Ferry in West Virginia.
John Steuart Curry's dramatic painting "Tragic Prelude " is quite famous and often reproduced.