By Ronnie Ellis/CNHI News Service
The state capitol is having a birthday party this weekend and you’re invited. The venerable domed capitol building officially opened on June 2, 1910 and the state is throwing a 100th birthday party Friday evening and Saturday.
The present capitol is actually the state’s fourth. Construction began in 1905 because the previous capitol — still standing in downtown Frankfort — was considered a firetrap and too small, according to David Buchta, Director and State Curator for the Division of Historic Properties.
“The previous capitol was finished in 1832 and was really much too small,” Buchta said while standing on the mezzanine of the current building, overlooking the statues of Abraham Lincoln, Henry Clay, Alben Barkley and Jefferson Davis.
“And it was considered a firetrap with so many people in the building,” he said. “People at that time were terrified of fire.”
Electricity was a new innovation and the old capitol was poorly wired and still used a combination of electricity, gas and open flames for light and heat.
No building is fire proof of course, said Buchta, but the present structure was considered close when it opened in 1910.
About 20,000 people showed up to see the structure of Georgia white marble, gray Tennessee marble, dark green Italian marble — and the exterior of Indiana limestone.
Why not Kentucky limestone?
“Indiana marble is more durable and at the time it was also cheaper,” Buchta said.
The structure was built for $1.8 million and was designed by Frank Mills Andrews, an award-winning architect. All the labor was manual, aided by horse power, pulleys and cranes, Buchta pointed out.
The 32 16-ton marble columns which line the second floor had to be hoisted into place by hand after being transported by rail and boat from Vermont and then towed up what is now Capitol Avenue to the capitol. Their price at the time: $1,622 each.
The dome rises 165 feet from floor to cupola inside and the outside tip is 217 feet above ground. Beneath the dome are five statues. Lincoln occupies the center, placed there in 1911 and paid for by J.B. Speed, son of one of Lincoln’s close friends, Joshua Speed, according to Buchta.
Jefferson Davis joined him — “for obvious reasons,” Buchta explained — in 1930. In 1938, plaster casts of statues of Henry Clay and Dr. Ephraim McDowell were added. The actual statues reside in U.S. Capitol Statuary Hall in the nation’s capitol. In 1968, Alben Barkley became the fifth and final statue to be placed in the rotunda.
Before 1955, Buchta said, the capitol’s basement went largely unused — it now houses offices for some legislative staff, building staff and additional office space for some constitutional offices such as the Attorney General and Secretary of State. But legend has it that when the capitol opened, it was used as a stable for the horses government officials rode to work.
The two-day centennial celebration kicks off Friday night with a privately funded Capitol Centennial Gala in the Capitol Rotunda at 7 p.m. Gov. Steve Beshear and first lady Jane Beshear will officially unveil four murals that are now a permanent feature of the Rotunda.
Tickets cost $75 per person, $150 per couple. About 400 are expected to attend, according to Cindy Lanham, spokeswoman for the Finance and Administration Cabinet.
The cost of the murals was contributed by Marion and Terry Forcht of Corbin. The murals were part of the original design of the Rotunda but the state never came up with enough money to commission them. The themes of the mural represent nature, industry, civilization and culture.
Saturday’s events are free and open to the public. There will be live entertainment on multiple stages. Among the performers will be the Stephen Foster Singers, Flamenco Dancers, the Big Sandy Singers, the University of Kentucky Opera Singers and Campbellsville University choir, and others. There will also be craft displays, an antique auto show, artists, vendors and numerous family activities.
The official ceremony will begin at 2 p.m. with anticipated guests Gov. Beshear and his wife, former governors and first ladies, Chief Justice John Minton, legislative leaders and local elected officials.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.