A capitol undertaking


A groundbreaking ceremony in 1868 started the sixth capitol building for Illinois.

The Illinois legislature authorized a new capitol building at Springfield in 1867 on a nine-acre plot of land in the center of the town. John Cochrane and Alfred Piquenard were the architects at the beginning of the project, but Piquenard died in 1876, which delayed completion.

In 1877, there were not enough funds to complete the gigantic structure, but the General Assembly started meeting there regardless of the problems. Work resumed in 1884 with new funding and a new architect W. W. Boyington, who designed Chicago’s Water Tower building, brought on to help Cochrane.

During construction of the new capitol building, a plan was submitted to move the state capital and for the legislature to meet in Chicago. Thanks to Mrs. O’Leary’s cow that started the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the plans to move the capital to Chicago were canceled.

The Toledo, Wabash and Western railroad built a track around the capitol to haul the needed materials to the site. Limestone came from Joliet and Lemont. The granite for the staircases came from other sources. Domestic and imported multi-colored marble was also used.

It took 20 million bricks, 1.4 million pounds of wrought iron and 3.4 million pounds of cast iron to complete the building. The capitol is 258 feet wide and 379 feet long. From the ground to the top of the flagpole on the center dome is 405 feet, which is taller than the U. S. Capitol building.

The building’s basic form is in the shape of a Greek cross with four equal wings and is of French Renaissance and Italianate design. It is understandable why this building took so long to build and the cost at that time was $4.3 million. There was only $6.35 returned to the state treasury of the unspent funds for the building.

There are four main floors and a staircase of 110 steps from the first floor to the gallery on the fourth floor. In the center of the first floor rotunda is a statue of a lady, which welcomes the people to the building with open arms. This piece was sculptured by Julia M. Bracken and sits on a pedestal on top of an eight-pointed star that represents one point for each letter of the word Illinois.

Bracken’s statue was first created for the Columbian Exposition of 1893 for the World’s Fair in Chicago and moved to the capitol building in 1895. Other artwork on this floor includes paintings of Starved Rock, Governor Coles freeing his slaves, Abraham Lincoln at New Salem, Marquette and Joliet and 12 pictures of U. S. presidents. There are also ceiling murals of Faith, Hope and Charity.

The second floor contains the governor and lieutenant governor’s offices, hall of governors and the old Supreme Court room. The court now sits in another building. There are portraits of past governors and George Washington. There are statues of famous legislators including Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. The comptroller, treasurer and secretary of state offices are also on this floor.

The third floor has the Senate chamber on the north end and the House chamber on the south end. The view from the rotunda looking upward shows a stained glass representation of the state’s great seal complete with an eagle. The state seal is also on every doorknob in the capitol.

A 1968 project restored the dome to its original glory.

Just below the pillars that support the top is the greatest artwork in the building completely circling the dome on the inside. It is a series of plaster friezes depicting the important events of American history. They are painted in such a way to resemble a bronze surface and include Patrick Henry in his eloquent address to the founders, the surrender of Blackhawk, the British surrender at Yorktown and Lincoln and Douglas in debate.

At the west alcove of this floor is a grand mural of 20 by 40 feet which shows George Rogers Clark speaking to the Indians after Kaskaskia was taken from the British on July 4,1778.

The fourth floor contains the galleries for the Senate and House along with a senate committee meeting room that displays the Illinois Civil War battle flags. There are also three large murals in the halls depicting industry, agriculture and commerce.

One of the biggest events associated with the capital was the Oct. 6, 1868, laying of the cornerstone. People crowded in via train, wagons, buggies and horseback to observe the cornerstone laying. This particular cornerstone was not made to support the weight of the new structure, and it cracked.

It was taken out and buried in front of the building and a new one put in place November 1870. The old stone was subsequently excavated and can be seen near the front steps on the east side of the capitol. There is a plaque next to the stone with an explanation by Jim Edgar when he was Secretary of State in 1985.

The capitol building was restored in 2011 for a cost of $50 million. That was a high cost, but the building is now a priceless gem found in Central Illinois.

Shelby Cullom was the first governor to serve the state in this new building in 1877. Barack Obama served as a state senator in this building from 1997 until 2004 when he became president of our country.

There is so much history to see in this building, a place where so many decisions were made that have affected the governing for the citizens of Illinois.