In terms of sheer historical symbolism, Alabama’s capitol is unrivaled by any other structure in the state. Beneath its towering portico on February 18, 1861, Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as president of the newly formed Confederate States of America, plunging America into civil war. A little over a century later, in the spring of 1965, the Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., ended dramatically at the foot of the capitol steps, setting a course toward full political equality for African Americans.
Facing westward toward the center of town, down long, sloping Dexter Avenue, the capitol building occupies a commanding site that may have been marked for the statehouse as early as 1819. Dream became reality in 1846, when the growing city of Montgomery wrested the state government from Tuscaloosa by promising to erect—at its own expense—a fine new capitol building. Philadelphia architect Stephen Decatur Button was tapped to design the structure, and he employed the by now familiar statehouse template of a porticoed facade topped with a dome. Completed in 1847, this first building on the site was by all accounts strikingly handsome. But only two years later, on December 14, 1849 (thirty years to the day after Alabama entered the Union), the new statehouse burned to the ground. With firm resolve, but less money, rebuilding pressed ahead.
On March 16, 1850, Nimrod Benson, one of the commissioners appointed to spearhead the task, reported to Governor Henry Collier that, “Mr. [Daniel] Pratt today submitted a plan for the new State House with which I am, generally, much pleased.” Better remembered as Alabama’s foremost early industrialist, the versatile Pratt had actually begun his career as a builder—first in his native New Hampshire, then in Georgia, before relocating in the 1830s to the namesake industrial village he had founded on Autauga Creek, ten miles northwest of Montgomery.
Pratt proposed rebuilding the statehouse with a larger structure than its predecessor. An early rendering depicts what is essentially today’s building covered with a frosting of Gothic detail, including a crenellated parapet perhaps inspired by the imposing Gothic Revival statehouse just completed in Louisiana. These oddities were rejected in favor of conventional classical vocabulary, though, as a cost-cutting measure, the replacement building lacked the rich interior ornamentation of its predecessor.
In April 1850, contracts were let to local builders John P. Figh and James D. Randolph for the masonry and wood framing, respectively. At the same time, plans and specifications for the building were placed into the hand of Barachias Holt, named as superintendent of construction. Over the course of the year-long project, the extraordinary carpentry talents of Horace King were also engaged. Born enslaved in South Carolina, and trained as a builder (especially of bridges), King gained his freedom in 1846 and became an outstanding building contractor. In 1868, he would become one of the first African Americans to sit in the Alabama state legislature.
Finished late in 1851, the second statehouse incorporated into its foundation a portion of the west wall of its predecessor (these remains may still be seen in a cellar beneath the west front). Today, the 1851 building comprises the main block of the present capitol. Rising three full stories from a low basement, its pilastered facade centers on a massive hexastyle portico. Fluted columns of stuccoed brick are topped with cast-iron capitals inspired by Plate 11 in Minard Lafever’s The Beauties of Modern Architecture (1835). Corinthianesque in character, the capitals were produced at the local Janney Foundry from ore mined in northern Alabama. Surmounting the wide entablature is a boxy three-faced clock, once bracketed by large acanthus-leaf scrolls, which has marked time since its installation shortly after the capitol was completed. Above and beyond the clock swells a large, lantern-capped dome resting on a peristyle of wooden Corinthian columns.
Just inside the main foyer are twin stairways, rising in a graceful double spiral to the third floor, which are believed to be the work of King. Investigations in the mid-1980s revealed that the stairs—often touted as “unsupported”—were effectively carried underneath by horizontally placed, crisscrossed wooden structural members, not unlike the famous Town lattice truss, which had earlier revolutionized covered bridge construction and was employed frequently by builder King.
A few years after the Civil War, gas lighting was installed in the capitol and trompe l’oeil painting enhanced its austere public spaces, most significantly the rotunda. At the time, this painting was erroneously thought to be true fresco. In 1885, the rear wing of the T-shaped building was expanded by six bays to accommodate a large judicial library and two floors of offices above. During the same decade, electricity was incrementally introduced into the building.
Throughout the nineteenth century, the three branches of state government remained in the spaces that had been designated for them when the capitol was finished in 1851. Executive offices and the judiciary occupied the first floor, while the two legislative chambers took up most of the rest of the building. The continued growth of state government, especially after 1900, sparked a major expansion in the years before World War I, resulting in the building familiar to Alabamians today. Montgomery architect Frank Lockwood’s heavy-handed initial design for the expansion, presented in 1905, ignited a heated controversy in the local press and was later improved. Evidence unearthed by Mobile restoration architect Nicholas Holmes Jr. in the late 1970s suggests that this was done after consultation with Charles Follen McKim of New York, who recommended redesigning the new side wings, which Lockwood had initially scaled to match the height of the original structure to defer to the historic core of the building. McKim may have also suggested other refinements to the classical exterior of the new wings, and advised against the grossly overscaled new dome that Lockwood had proposed but which was ultimately rejected.
The first phase of the capitol expansion began in 1906, with construction of a south wing completed the following year. When more funds became available, a matching north wing was added in 1911–1912. The same period saw extensive interior renovations as well, with pavers of Georgia marble replacing the original wooden floors, and neoclassical relief plasterwork superseding the Reconstruction-era trompe l’oeil in the central rotunda. Likewise, new desks and chairs in the legislative chambers replaced nineteenth-century appointments.
During the late 1920s, the rotunda underwent further redecoration under the guidance of Scottish-born artist Roderick Mackenzie of Mobile, who worked closely with the Colby Decorating Company of Birmingham. Gold and a purplish “dusty plumb” predominated in a color scheme intended to complement a series of eight large murals that Mackenzie painted depicting episodes from Alabama’s past—from Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto’s first encounter with native cultures to the steel mills of industrial Birmingham. Executed on canvas in his Mobile studio, the murals were then transported by train to Montgomery for installation under Mackenzie’s supervision.
When the Supreme Court moved into a separate building in 1940, the large east wing judicial library was subdivided into offices and the original semicircular court chamber was dismantled to provide additional space for the expanding state bureaucracy. Though the vibrant rotunda color scheme of the 1920s was toned down following World War II, few changes were made to the building for another three decades. In 1978, a lengthy period of renovation, restoration, and enlargement began, lasting intermittently until 1992. This building campaign produced a monumental rear addition—in effect a secondary facade—fronted by a soaring east-front portico with flanking raised terraces above an enlarged basement area housing an auditorium, gift shop, storage and utility areas, and yet more office space.
The legislature’s 1985 relocation to a building across the street renewed focus on the historic core of the capitol building. As a result, the old Senate chamber was restored as closely as possible to its 1860s appearance. In the House of Representatives, the original governor’s suite, and elsewhere, the Reconstruction-era fresco work was replicated to recall yet another phase of the building’s architectural history. Reclaimed as well, in the soaring rotunda, was the color scheme of the late 1920s. Finally, the Greek Revival architectural shell of the original Supreme Court chamber was reconstructed as a walk-through exhibit space.
Like the capitol building itself, the surrounding landscape has evolved incrementally. At first occupying a narrow sliver of ground through the middle of an oversized city block, the capitol had claimed the entire square by the early 1900s. From the 1850s on, there were intermittent attempts to embellish the grounds with shrubs and plantings. In the 1880s, an ornamental cast-iron fence was installed in front of the capitol. An ambitious landscape plan was commissioned from Olmsted and Associates in the 1920s but never implemented. In the mid-1950s, at the instigation of colorful populist governor “Big Jim” Folsom, the narrow steps approaching the capitol portico from Dexter Avenue were replaced by a broad, terraced marble stairway. A semicircular drive approaching the south portico dates from 1907; once bordered by crepe myrtles, it became the Avenue of Flags in the 1960s.
More recent changes in grounds design, based on a concept developed by Montgomery landscape architect Mary Walton Upchurch, introduced curvilinear walkways among plantings evocative of Alabama and the South. On the north side of the capitol building, a towering Confederate monument dedicated in 1894 is the oldest and by far most prominent of a number of memorials now dotting the grounds. Over the last seventy-five years other state buildings, beginning most notably with the Department of Archives and History (1940), have gradually been built along streets adjacent to the capitol. Designated a National Historic Landmark, the building is now mainly occupied by the executive branch of government and is used for ceremonial occasions.
Dolan, Thomas, and Robert Gamble. “The Alabama State Capitol: Architectural History of the Capitol Interiors .” Unpublished report, Alabama Historical Commission, 1984.
Hole, Donna Crim. “The Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery: An Architectural and Political History .” Master’s thesis, Auburn University, 1979.