ARKANSAS STATE CAPITOL BUILDING'S CATTYWOMPUS ORIENTATION

Facing West on Capitol AvenueIt's not the kind of thing you'll notice unless somebody points it out to you, but the foundation of the State Capitol is tilted.

This is the Arkansas State Capitol Building's east facade. This view is looking west down 5th Street (A.K.A. Capitol Avenue). The original plan was to have the building face squarely down this road so that a visitor approaching on Capitol Avenue would be impressed by the architectural majesty of the building. But as sometimes happens with public projects things gang the heck aglee from the very beginning and the foundation was laid about nine degrees off square.

Closeup of RotundaNotice in this detail that although Capitol Avenue's double yellow lines up pretty well with the golden cupola on top of the dome, the front door is off to the right of center. Also note in the upper left corner of the picture you can see architectural elements on the far side of the rotunda which you could not see if you were facing the building head on. Next consider the staircase running up to the front entrance. The left edge of the staircase is pointing straight down fifth street while the right edge veers off to the observer's right. The American Flag which aligns with the center of the rotunda and the front door and the center of the staircase appears still farther to the right of the center of Capitol Avenue. Here's how that happened.

These grounds on this gentle hill used to be the site of a prison. (I won't go for the easy joke.) The whole thing was walled in. The plan was to build the building within the prison walls using plentiful and economical convict labor and then tear down the walls and demolish the prison. A commission was appointed and rules were drawn up requiring the use of "professional contractors." George Donaghey of Conway, by some coincidence the only professional builder serving on the commission, was chosen to lay the foundation.

He stood on the west wall and sighted down 5th street as best he could, given that the east wall blocked his view of the street. By successive adjustments "a little to the left, now toward me, no--YOUR left..." and without the incumberance of surveying devices of any kind, the proper position of the center stake was determined by eyeball and Donaghey directed the stake be driven in. Using that stake as a reference, the foundation was laid out on a true north/south axis.

Map of Capitol and VicinityIt wasn't until the prison walls were torn down that anybody noticed that 5th Street was not oriented on a true east/west axis, but rather was aligned parallel to the Arkansas River. So instead of approaching the capitol directly from the front, one moves in on it from slightly off to one side the way one might approach a horse. Considerable landscaping has been done to help disguise the nine-degree error in addition to a measure of spin doctoring on the part of Donaghey in his self-congratulatory book "Building a State Capitol," published in 1937. He refers to the asymmetry as a lucky accident, noting that proper alignment with 5th Street would have resulted in the building sitting awkwardly on the property with one front corner seventy-five feet from the eastern property boundary and the other front corner one-hundred-fifty feet from the eastern property boundary.

The project was controversial not only because of a continuous stream of snafus like this one, but also because of its jaw-dropping projected cost of one million dollars. (I can no longer even think the phrase "one million dollars" without hearing it in the voice of Mike Meyers.) Opposition was fierce, the politicking was dirty, corruption was rife, essential technical expertise was missing and the project was cancelled and resumed many times over, driving the completion date back and the cost up. The project eventually required 2.5 million dollars spent over sixteen years.

George W. Donaghey in the Governor's MansionThe building was completed when this man ran for governor (and won) on a "Complete the Capitol" platform. That's George Donaghey, the same guy who laid the foundation crooked. You'd think a bonehead move like that would be an obstacle to the governor's mansion. You'd be wrong. Welcome to Arkansas.

I don't intend to imply that Donaghey merely bookended the construction of the capitol. It was the one great obsession of his professional life, and he was an active proponent and participant in every bizarre phase of the undertaking.

I'm not going to go into detail about the other surreal episodes, but it's a real frontier comic opera. A State Senator went to prison for bribery. At one time there were two capitol commissions convened simultaneously and one engineered a burglary to steal the plans from the other. Drawings sent to the general contractor called for eight expensive marble columns, but the drawings sent to the quarry in Batesville specified sixteen. Originally the dome was to be a copy of the dome from Saint Peter's in Rome, but as costs rose the plans for the dome started shrinking and losing expensive decorative details until finally Donaghey just copped the plans of the elegantly spare dome of the Mississippi capitol building. If you're interested in reading more on the subject, the best place to start is John A. Treon's master's degree thesis at the University of Arkansas.

RTJ--6/1/2000

Sources:

Treon, John A., Politics and Concrete: The Building of the Arkansas State Capitol, 1899-1917; Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Vol. XXXI, no. 2; pp 99-149.

Donaghey, George W.; Building a State Capitol; Parke-Harper Company, 1937.


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