Well, as the old man said, you get what you pay for. Designed by George Mann and completed in 1915, the monumental neo-classical Capitol building in Little Rock, Arkansas, was constructed over a lengthy period of sixteen years, and, in good governmental style, the costs soared to nearly two and a half times the million dollars originally budgeted. That was a lot of money 100 years ago, but ten times that amount couldn’t purchase today the marble floors and walls, Colorado columns, grand staircases, and bronze doors that have been the pride of Arkansans for the century in between.
The state did save money where they could, of course. For example, the site chosen was that of the old state penitentiary, and handy inmates made for cheap labor.
Not surprisingly, none of their portraits hang on the walls they built. In their stead are suspended those of every past Arkansas governor, from Izard to Clinton, overlooking the never-ending stream of visitors who tour the 247,000-square-foot structure every day, every year.
One of those portraits is of George Donaghey, who pledged to voters he would see the completion of the Capitol’s construction if elected. That was one hopeful politician’s promise kept. Today a massive walnut table, made from a tree his father had planted on the family farm, sits squarely in the middle of the governor’s reception room in memory of the anomaly.
The portrait of Governor-turned-President William Jefferson Clinton, however, finds its home in the grand rotunda, watching, no doubt, over the Treasurer’s office with its eleven-ton vault door—brought into the Capitol by wagon in the nineteen teens. Opposite the Treasurer’s office at the building’s entrance are six ten-foot-tall bronze doors purchased from Tiffany’s in 1910. Suspended from the domed ceiling far above is a two-ton chandelier, twelve feet in diameter and eighteen in height. And if one could shimmy up the seventy-three-foot chandelier chain through the center of the dome itself (use your imagination), he would eventually reach the cupola, exquisitely visible at great distances, all covered in gold leaf, a fitting ornament to the limestone crown the building wears.
Back inside, feet on the floor, stained glass adorns the domes of both Senate and House chambers, while gilded columns finished with scagliola stand sentinel over the people’s representatives as they take weighty matters in hand and guide the rudder of the Arkansas ship of state. The Great Seal with the state’s motto also stands by soberly to remind them: Regnat Populus, “The People Rule,” as if to say, don’t let all that gold and marble go to your head—you are not called “public servants” for no good reason.
For over the years Presidential hopefuls and protestors alike have stood on these columned Capitol steps, a place of power, where one might be heard, where announcements to the world—if sometimes merely to the limited world of a Southern state—might receive the reverberation of centuried stone and storied porticos. Architectural context matters. No doubt that is why Arkansas spent $2.3 million a century ago and has spent millions of dollars in upkeep and restoration ever since, presenting to the world a work of art worthy of her proud citizens, and inspiring acts worthy of those past, present, and future who look on.