Tuesday 11 April 2017

Harrisburg Rebuilds Capitol, Thumbs Nose at Philadelphia

Harrisburg Capitol Building

The City Beautiful Movement, which started in Chicago with the World's Fair in 1893, spread to Washington DC, Boston, Cleveland and Philadelphia.  Smaller cities were not to be outdone.  When a fire consumed the Capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, there was talk of moving the Capitol to Philadelphia.  However, the House of Representatives voted 103 to 75 to keep the Capitol. Concerned citizens, in the meantime, formed a city improvement committee.  Just as Chicago had risen from the ashes after the Great Fire of 1871, owing its reputation for great architecture from the subsequent rebuilding, so too could Harrisburg.

Conservationist Mira Lloyd Dock delivered a riveting speech, "The City Beautiful", to the Harrisburg Board in 1901.  Dock joined forces with Horace McFarland, president of the Civic Association, to promote the cause of civic improvement.  The same year, The City Telegraph printed a front page article pointing out Harrisburg's problems and highlighting Dock's message of beautification and recreation.  In February of 1901, the public voted to set aside $1.1 million for new buildings and city planning.

Harrisburg was bound and determined that they, not Philadelphia, deserved the title of state capital.  A contest was held to find an architect to build the new Capitol won by Joseph M. Huston.  Painters Violet Oakley and Edwin Austin Abbey along with sculptor George G. Barnard, were hired to decorate the building.  A Philadelphia newspaper called the new Capitol, built in 1906, "one of the most artistic monuments of the state".

The project  however was not without controversy.  Oakley's paintings, which highlighted that Pennsylvania was founded on religious freedom, offended some Roman Catholics.  The bas-relief heads on the Capitol doors, intended to represent the different men who lived in Pennsylvania, were mocked by political cartoonists.  The nude statues which arrived from France offended some Pennsylvanians and were covered up in 1911.

Nonetheless, the Times of Buffalo pointed out that it was the only Capitol to be completed within its estimates.  President Theodore Roosevelt presided over the official opening of the building on February 5, 1906.  Mary D. Fitzgerald called the new Capitol "perfectly wonderful, marvelously beautiful [and] a superb success."

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