The Story of Georgia’s Capitols and Capital Cities
Introduction Georgia’s First Capital Savannah and Augusta as Rotating Capitals Augusta Become State Capital Georgia’s Third Capital, Louisville Milledgeville as State Capital Atlanta Becomes State Capital Kimball Opera House Georgia’s Current Capitol Architectural Style of the Capitol Mystery of the Capitol Statue Renovating the Capitol Adding the Gold to the Capitol Dome Regilding the Capitol Dome State Museum State Capitol Complex
When Georgia declared its independence from Great Britain in 1776, Atlanta did not exist. At that time, Indians occupied most of the state, and the Atlanta vicinity fell on the boundary line between the Creek and Cherokee Indians–the two principal Indian tribes in Georgia.
The story of how Atlanta came to be Georgia’s capital city–and of the gold-domed capitol building–is a fascinating one. But first, a distinction should be made in two similar words–“capital” and “capitol.” These two words–sometimes used incorrectly–derive from the Latin word “caput,” meaning “head.” Although the word “capital” now has a number of different meanings, within government it refers to the city where the government of a state or nation is located. Thus, Atlanta is the capital of Georgia, as Washington, D.C., is the capital of the United States. (Incidentally, the term “capital” is not used to designate the city where a county’s government is located. Historically, such a city was termed the “county site,” but today is referred to as the “county seat.”)
“Capitol,” on the other hand, refers to the large, often domed, building that serves as the main center of government. For example, Georgia’s State Capitol currently houses the two chambers of the General Assembly, House and Senate officers, and legislative support staff; Georgia’s Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Secretary of State (and many of their staff); and the State Museum of Science and Industry.
It is said that when the founders of Rome dug the foundations for the first temple, they unearthed a human head, which was interpreted as an omen that Rome would be the head of all Italy. This temple became known as the “Capitolium,” from “caput” (head) and “Tollii” (meaning “of Tollius,” a mythical hero of these early Romans.) This building became a military and religious center of the Roman world, and the name was to be later given to the main governmental building in each Roman colony.
The term “capitol” was first used in America in 1699, when the Virginia House of Burgesses provided that the governmental building that would be constructed to house that body be called the “Capitol.” The more commonly used term in referring to the governmental building (at that time all state government could be housed in one building) until the 1800s, however, was “statehouse.” Even today, 11 states continue the traditional term “statehouse” instead of “capitol.”
Georgia’s First Capital
Atlanta is the fifth city to be designated capital of Georgia. Several other cities have also served as temporary seats of government, as seen in the following table.
HISTORY OF GEORGIA CAPITALS
1777-78 Savannah 1779-80 Augusta* 1780-81 Heard’s Fort*, miscellaneous sites in Wilkes County 1781-82 Augusta 1782 Ebenezer*, Savannah 1783 Augusta 1784 Savannah, Augusta 1785 Savannah 1786-96 Augusta 1796-1806 Louisville 1807-1864 Milledgeville 1864-65 Macon* 1865-68 Milledgeville 1868-present Atlanta
- Temporary meeting sites of state government
To trace the history of these capitals, we must go back over 200 years, beginning with the founding of Georgia. In February 1733, James Oglethorpe landed at Yamacraw Bluff, which was so named after the Yamacraw Indians–a tribe of the Creek Indians. Tomochichi, chief of the Yamacraws, gave Oglethorpe approval for a settlement, which Oglethorpe named Savannah, after the river of that name on which the new settlement was located.
In May 1733, Oglethorpe and Tomochichi signed a treaty, the first of a long number that would eventually involve all Indian lands in Georgia, which ceded Creek lands to the Trustees from the Savannah to the Altamaha rivers, inland from the coast as far as the tide flowed.
It is probably incorrect to designate Savannah as “capital” or “seat of government” of the colony at this point. Actual governmental power resided with the trustees back in London, subject to the king’s assent. By virtue of their 1732 charter, the trustees were given control of the new colony for 21 years, after which Georgia would become the responsibility of the Crown. During this time, the trustees never designated a governor for the colony, instead retaining much of the control themselves.
Oglethorpe, himself a trustee, led the founding of the colony, but by the terms of the charter was forbidden from holding office in Georgia. And although given only limited authority, he soon assumed leadership in the colony.
Concern with the Spanish forces at St. Augustine led Oglethorpe to return to England to plead for a British military presence south of Savannah. In 1736, Oglethorpe was given the rank of colonel and a regiment of 600 British soldiers to defend Georgia. He then returned to Georgia with the regiment and new colonists, establishing a new settlement on St. Simons Island. Here, they laid out the town of Frederica (named in honor of Frederick, King George II’s only son), additionally building Fort Frederica on the inland edge of the island.
From this point, Colonel Oglethorpe spent all of his presence in Georgia at Frederica (or to the south in military campaigns against the Spanish), leading some historians to credit Frederica as Georgia’s de facto capital from 1736 to 1743, when Oglethorpe (now a general) returned to England. However, in 1736, the trustees had designated William Stephens of Savannah as secretary of the colony of Georgia, meaning that for the following seven years, Savannah could also make a claim to seat of government for the colony.
In 1743, the confusion ended when Oglethorpe returned to England and the trustees designated William Stephens as “president” of the colony of Georgia. From this point, Savannah clearly served as the center of the colony’s government (such as was authorized or allowed).
With Georgia’s transition from a trustee to royal colony in 1754, the Board of Trade designated Savannah as Georgia’s capital city (or more correctly the “seat of government”)–and it was here that the Royal Governor, new legislative assembly, and courts were headquartered.
Two decades later, as the Revolutionary War approached, Savannah also became the center for the movement that would lead to independence from Britain. During 1775, in fact, both the newly convened provincial Congress and the royal Commons House of Assembly met in Savannah. By the end of 1775, however, the Royal Government no longer controlled the colony.
Georgia’s revolutionary government operated from Savannah at the time of statehood in 1776, though again no document or election formally designated Savannah as capital city. As the largest city of the new state, and by virtue of the tradition of the past three decades, Savannah was the seat of government.
Just after Christmas of 1778, however, Savannah fell to British forces, and Georgia’s government fled the city, attempting to reorganize in Augusta, 127 miles to the north. After the capture of Savannah, British and Tory sympathizers attempted to reinstitute Royal Government in the city.
In January 1779, an attempt was made to convene the revolutionary, or Whig, legislature in Augusta, but representatives from only three counties were present, and thus no quorum could be assembled. A temporary governing executive council was named, but it had to flee later that month as the British arrived, only to return when the British abandoned Augusta in February. Other attempts to organize a government were made that year in Augusta, though the revolutionary forces were split into two factions.
Finally, in January 1780, a new assembly was convened in Augusta, while a resolution was passed designating Heard’s Fort–a site to the northeast in Wilkes County–as the meeting place for the legislature in case of attack. Soon the British recaptured Augusta, and Georgia’s government convened at Heard’s Fort in May, 1780.
This fortification, named after Stephen Heard, president of the Executive Council, was located eight miles from the present-day city of Washington, Georgia. Heard’s Fort disappeared after the Revolutionary War, and no trace remains today of the village that served as a temporary seat of Georgia government during the American Revolution.
During the next year, little is known about the location of Georgia’s state government. Likely, it kept on the move in Wilkes County and possibly even in South Carolina. By April 1781, a new offensive was under way by Continental forces against the British, and Augusta was soon recaptured. Here, an effort was made to reassemble a state government for Georgia, and in August a newly elected legislature was convened. This body elected a new governor and other state officials and proceeded with enactment of a variety of laws.
Augusta served as the capital from August 17, 1781, until May 4, 1782. By this time, the tide of war had changed in favor of American forces, and by July 1782, the British had evacuated Savannah.
As Georgia state officials prepared to return to Savannah, one other city was to serve as temporary seat of government until the British evacuated. Ebenezer (named after the German word for “the stone of help”), a small German settlement 25 miles northwest of Savannah, served as the meeting site for Georgia’s Executive Council on July 3 and 4, 1782. On July 4, the legislature also convened at Ebenezer, but adjourned to meet in Savannah. Ebenezer, once the center of Georgia’s hoped-for silk industry, would later fade from existence, as did Frederica and Heard’s Fort.
Savannah and Augusta as Rotating Capitals
Following the recapture of Savannah, Georgia’s legislative assembly convened in the coastal city on July 13, 1782. However, a split between coastal and upland Georgia which had been building before the Revolutionary War resurfaced. The growing importance of Augusta led the Executive Council to spend part of the year in that city, and a period began when the capital rotated between Savannah and Augusta.
In January 1783, the General Assembly met in Savannah, but in May the Council resolved to move the capital to Augusta so that it would be nearer the growing backcountry. On May 15th of that year, the lawmakers attempted to convene in Augusta, but no quorum was present until July 8, 1783. Once the session began, however, it remained under way for three months.
On January 6, 1784, the General Assembly returned to Savannah, adjourning that session in February with a motion to meet in Augusta the following July. On July 5, 1784, lawmakers attempted to convene in Augusta, but for a week no quorum could be assembled, and the members present asked the governor to call the Assembly at a time and place when a meeting of the legislature should become necessary.
Such a meeting was called for October 6, 1784, in Savannah. Here, too, a quorum could not be assembled, and the session adjourned on October 14. On January 4, 1785, the General Assembly convened a session in Savannah, marking the last episode of that city’s history as the capital of Georgia. Where precisely the legislature met in Savannah is uncertain. During the period immediately preceding the Revolution, it is known that the various revolutionary assemblies met in taverns (such as that of Peter Tondee), private homes, and perhaps other meeting halls. There was no statehouse building, however, and presumably the names and locations of meeting halls are lost to history.
Augusta Becomes State Capital
Important events had been taking place in Georgia in addition to the Revolutionary War. Large areas of Indian lands neighboring the coastal area of the state had been obtained from the Indians and opened to new settlers, and the center of population began shifting away from Savannah and the coast. During the Revolution, people in Georgia frontier settlements had discovered how convenient it was to have the capital in Augusta, for in those days, many matters handled by courts today–such as divorces and name changes–had to be enacted by the legislature. Additionally, the legislature approved land grants, bridges and ferries, pardons, excusals from paying taxes, authorizations to practice law, and a number of other things, which made it important to live near the meeting site of the legislature. This was especially true since there were no trains at this time, and other forms of transportation were slow and primitive.
Therefore, by 1784, there was growing concern among the new settlers that the capital not revert to Savannah. The agitation for a new capital became so great that when the General Assembly adjourned its last meeting in Savannah on February 22, 1785, it resolved that “all future meetings of the Legislature shall be and continue at that place (Augusta) until otherwise ordered by the General Assembly.”
Augusta was thus now the official capital, and the first session of the legislature convened there on January 3, 1786. However, for many, even Augusta was too far east, and on January 26, 1786, the legislature appointed a commission to find a “proper and convenient place” for a new capital–one that would be centrally located and accessible to all residents of the occupied sections of Georgia.
For the 1786 session, lawmakers rented the house of Abraham Jones, located on the southwestern corner of Broad Street and Lincoln (today Third) Street. Out of need for a larger facility, the General Assembly negotiated with the trustees of Richmond Academy for rental of its building on the eastern corner of Lincoln and Elbert Streets (today Third and Fourth Streets). The trustees thereafter purchased the two adjacent lots (lots 9 and 10) and built a new academy adjacent to the building occupied by the General Assembly.
Georgia’s Third Capital, Louisville
The commission appointed by the legislature in 1786 to find a new site for the capital was not entirely unbridled in its task, for the legislature’s mandate also stipulated that the commission select a location within 20 miles of an Indian trading post known as “Galphin’s Old Town” or “Galphinton” on the Ogeechee River in what is now Jefferson County. It was here that George Galphin established a trading post two decades earlier.
The commission was authorized to purchase 1,000 acres for the new city, which would be patterned after Philadelphia, the first capital of the United States. The legislature also directed that the new capital site be called “Louisville,” in honor of Louis XVI of France in appreciation for French help during the Revolutionary War.
The actual site selected for the capital was the intersection of three roads–those to Savannah, Augusta, and now-forgotten Georgetown, where a market, built in 1758 and still standing today, stood. Plans approved for the new capital city called for five streets on each of the four sides of the market, with a statehouse and governor’s mansion equal distances on either side.
Despite the designation of the new capital city, Augusta continued to serve as state capital for 10 more years, until 1796. The building of the capital at Louisville was delayed because of lack of funds, the death of the contractor, and the rush to obtain and disburse Creek and Cherokee lands.
Vast amounts of newly acquired Indian lands were being given away free or at nominal cost, and a great migration of settlers was pushing into Georgia, ultimately pressing for more and more land. In the midst of this sometimes tragic period of Georgia’s history, a number of state government officials became involved in dishonest land speculation and other illegal activities, the most notable or infamous being the Yazoo Land Fraud.
Finally in 1795, a special constitutional convention was held, in part to correct the land speculation and fraud. Here a new amendment to the Constitution of 1789 was adopted, officially designating Louisville as the “permanent seat of government” and also directing that the governor and other state officials be in the new capitol at Louisville before the next meeting of the legislature.
By March 1796, a new capitol building in the 18th century red brick Georgian architectural style was completed, and Georgia’s state government soon occupied the new capital city. There are no known paintings or sketches of this capitol building, except for a celebrated drawing of the burning of the Yazoo Act on the grounds of the Louisville capitol (though little of the design of the building can be determined from the sketch, except that it was a brick, two-story building).
John Melish, a Scotch merchant visiting Louisville in 1806, recorded in his diary the following description of Georgia’s capitol city and statehouse:
Louisville is the present capital of the state of Georgia, and is situated on the north-east bank of the Ogechee [sic] river, 70 miles from its outlet, and 100 miles from Savannah. It consists of about 100 dwelling houses, and contains about 550 inhabitants, of whom nearly one half are slaves. It is built on an elevated situation, and there is a pretty extensive view to the westward; but considerable marsh effluvia is generated on the banks of the river, which renders the place rather unhealthy. The country in the neighborhood is well cultivated; and Louisville contains a civil, well-bred society. There are ten dry-good and grocery stores in the place, and they have a considerable inland trade. The state-house is a good building of brick, about 50 feet square, and consists of two stories, having three apartments each, and a large lobby. The house of representatives meet in an apartment on the lower floor, and the other two are occupied as the secretary’s office, and the land office. The upper story consists of the senate chamber, the executive office, and the treasury. The offices were all shut, except the land office. I went into it, and saw a map of the newly acquired territory, or purchase, as it is called; concerning which the legislature had recently passed an act that was the subject of considerable animadversion in the state.
The press for new lands, however, continued unabated, and Louisville, Georgia’s first planned capital city, would serve as seat of government for only 10 years. Interestingly, it seems that a desire to move the capital also came from the malarial symptoms which developed in Louisville during this period.
In 1802, Indian lands west of Louisville were added to the state. No sooner had this territory been divided into counties than a drive to move the seat of government again was initiated. On December 2, 1804, lawmakers passed an act to build a new capital in Baldwin County. Some 3,240 acres of land were appropriated for the new town, which would be named Milledgeville, in honor of then Governor John Milledge.
It is not precisely known when state officials left Louisville for the new capital, though it is known that in December 1806, the legislature at Louisville passed an act appointing commissioners of the town of Milledgeville.
By an act of September 1807, the legislature made the Louisville statehouse into a public arsenal. Then, in 1813, the building was placed for sale, at which time it was purchased by St. Patrick’s Lodge No. 2. In December 1824, Jefferson County purchased the building from the Lodge for use as an inferior court for $1,500. Soon, however, a crack developed in the capitol building. Despite all efforts to prevent the crack from enlarging, it gradually widened and the building was condemned as unsafe and thereafter torn down. As much of the original material was salvaged as possible and used in a new courthouse built in 1843. This building was torn down around the turn of the century, and replaced by the courthouse currently standing. On the grounds of this courthouse, a plaque marks the site of Georgia’s first capitol building.
Milledgeville as State Capital
The story of the Milledgeville era as Georgia’s state capital began after only seven years in the Louisville capital. On May 11, 1803, a joint session of the General Assembly appointed a commission to select a site at the head of navigation of the Oconee River which would be suitable for a permanent capital to be named Milledgeville.
The site selected had been occupied in 1795 by Fort Defiance, built by General Elijah Clarke, who planned to set up a new republic in Creek Indian lands. His plans were soon thwarted, and the fort was later destroyed.
In December 1804, the General Assembly accepted the plans presented by the commissioners. Lots were sold, the money from which was to be used to construct the new statehouse. In the city, Government Square occupied almost 20 acres.
Construction of the new capitol took two years, but by the fall of 1807 the building was ready for occupation (although finishing touches would not be completed for 30 more years). In October 1807, 15 wagons left for Milledgeville from Louisville carrying the treasury and public records of the state.
The new Gothic Revival brick building was a parallelogram, with walls four feet thick, located about three-quarters of a mile from the Oconee River. Though a magnificent statehouse for the time, it did not have the dome commonly associated with capitol buildings, looking more like a castle or fortress. Although $60,000 had been authorized for the capitol’s construction, records indicate that the state ended up paying $79,976 for the original building. Later additions in 1828 and 1837 pushed the total cost for the capitol to some $200,000.
For 60 years, Milledgeville served as Georgia’s capital city. However, the pressures for more Indian lands continued, and, particularly after the Cherokees were removed from the state in 1834, it was to be expected that a desire to move the capital would soon be heard. Adding to the pressures came the era of the railroad.
The new candidate for capital city was a small settlement 90 miles northwest of Milledgeville on the Chattahoochee River. Originally an Indian village named Standing Peachtree, the area was part of an 1821 Creek territory ceded to Georgia. White settlers soon inhabited this area; in December 1836, the Georgia legislature chartered the Western and Atlantic railroad to connect the Chattahoochee and Tennessee Rivers. By 1838, construction on the railroad had begun, and soon the collection of stores and shacks supplying the railroad builders from the southern end of the line was properly known as “Terminus.”
In December 1843, the legislature incorporated Terminus but changed its name to Marthasville, in honor of former Governor Wilson Lumpkin’s youngest daughter, Martha. However, some residents and workers objected to a frontier railroad town bearing such a feminine name, so the new name of “Atlanta” (based on the Western and Atlantic Railroad) was proposed. Despite Lumpkin’s disapproval of what he considered a slight to his daughter, the General Assembly formally approved legislation in December 1847 renaming Marthasville as Atlanta.
Atlanta was soon to vie for selection as state capital, in part due to its rapid growth and its status as rail center of Georgia. By 1845, the Georgia Railroad linked Atlanta to Augusta, and the following year the Macon and Western (now the Central of Georgia) tied Atlanta to Macon. Soon Charleston, Memphis, and other cities would link with Atlanta, prompting certain Atlanta officials to begin a movement to attract state lawmakers into considering it as the site for state government.
The first legislative proposal to make Atlanta the capital came in December 1847, but the General Assembly defeated the measure by a 68-55 vote. Seven years later, however, Atlanta succeeded in getting lawmakers to place the question before the electorate in a general election. In that election, the statewide tally was
leave in Milledgeville 49,781;
move to Atlanta 29,337; and
move to Macon 3,802.
Rebuffed in its efforts to become capital of Georgia, Atlanta launched a bid to become capital of the new Confederacy with the coming of the Civil War. Atlanta’s Gate City Guardian printed the following toward the end:
This city has good railroad connections, is free from yellow fever, can supply the most wholesome foods, and as for ‘goobers,’ an indispensable article for a Southern Legislator, we have them all the time.
Though correct in its assessment of important qualities for a capital city, the editorial was unsuccessful in its objectives.
In November 1864, however, the Milledgeville capitol was evacuatedbecause it lay in the path of Sherman’s March to the Sea. Many of the state’s official records were loaded on trains, which pulled out just before Sherman reached the city. Sherman spared the capitol from burning, though the building was ransacked by federal troops, with books and papers scattered everywhere. Also a mock session of the Georgia legislature was held by these troops, at which they “repealed” Georgia’s secession ordinance.
With Sherman in control of Milledgeville, the state government fled, with the legislature convening in Macon. Here, a special session was held February 15 through March 11, 1865, at Macon’s old city hall. While Macon served as the meeting site for the legislature, it is reported that Governor Brown took refuge in Cordele, Georgia, at the home of Captain Hiram Williams. Although it is somewhat academic, it can be argued that for a brief while, Cordele served as temporary seat of government–at least for the governor.
In May 1865, following General Lee’s surrender, Georgia Governor Brown called the legislature to convene later that month in Milledgeville at the capitol, but he was arrested by federal troops and the legislature did not meet. Subsequently, federal troops took charge of state government in Georgia. A new constitution was subsequently adopted, elections held, and, in December 1865, the legislature met at the capitol in Milledgeville.
The end of Milledgeville’s era as state capital came in 1867. Briefly in 1867, Congress assumed control of Reconstruction in the South, with Georgia and other Southern states placed again under military authority. Major General John Pope was placed in command of Georgia on April 1, 1867, and shortly afterwards took up his duties in Atlanta. A new constitutional convention was called for the state, and General Pope ordered the convention to assemble in Atlanta, reportedly because of reports that Milledgeville innkeepers had proclaimed that black delegates to the convention would not be welcome in their inns. That convention met in Atlanta from January to March, 1868.
During this session, Atlanta city officials again made a bid for designation as Georgia’s capital–especially in light of Atlanta’s recent population growth and better rail accessibility. In February 1868, the Atlanta City Council held a special meeting to frame a formal proposal to the constitutional convention. Essentially, the council’s offer was that if Atlanta was designated state capital, the city would provide suitable buildings for the legislature, the governor, other state officials, and the supreme court at no charge for 10 years. Additionally, city officials offered the 25-acre fairground or the choice of any unoccupied 10 acres in the city for a state capitol. The constitutional convention accepted the offer and included in the Constitution of 1868 a formal provision:
The seat of Government of this State, from and after the date of the ratification of this Constitution, shall be in the City of Atlanta, and the General Assembly shall provide for the erection of a new Capitol, and such other buildings as the public welfare may require.
By a vote of 89,007 for, to 71,309 against, the new constitution was ratified in April 1868. Georgia now had a new capital–the fifth in fewer years than a century. Subsequently, the Milledgeville capitol building served as Baldwin County’s courthouse for several years. In 1879, it was converted into the Middle Georgia Military and Agriculture College, later renamed Georgia Military College. Though severely damaged by fire in 1941, the building was rebuilt in its former design and continues today as part of that school.
Atlanta Becomes State Capital
On June 30, 1868, a train of 16 cars left Atlanta for Milledgeville with an order from the provisional governor to bring back statehouse furniture and furnishings. Included in this inventory were five full-length paintings–Jefferson, Washington, Oglethorpe, Franklin, and Lafayette–painted by C.R. Parker in 1826. Oglethorpe and Lafayette had hung in the House chamber, while Washington and Jefferson had adorned the Senate chamber in Milledgeville. Today, these paintings hang in the capitol rotunda and represent some of the few surviving artifacts from the Milledgeville capitol.
Five days later, on July 4, the first meeting of the legislature took place in Atlanta on the very site of today’s capitol. However, in 1868 this site marked the location of the combination Atlanta City Hall and Fulton County Courthouse, which for a brief period served as Georgia’s first statehouse in Atlanta.
Through the early 1850s, Atlanta had no city hall to conduct public business. In 1853, however, Colonel Richard Peters sold the city four acres for the construction of a city hall. It is reported that the site was so far from the rest of town that one member of the city council resigned over the purchase. However, construction of the city hall began in 1853.
On December 30, 1853, the legislature incorporated Fulton County, with Atlanta designated county seat. Because Atlanta citizens were already being taxed for the construction of the city hall, they were apparently anxious to avoid additional taxation for a courthouse for the new county government, and thus Atlanta city officials drew up an agreement with Fulton County in May 1854 whereby Fulton County could use the city hall for a courthouse as long as it desired, at no rent to the county.
Though some had complained that the new building was too far from town, the slightly elevated hill chosen overlooked the Atlanta community and, in fact, was the identical location of today’s capitol.
Completed in October 1854, the city hall building, designed and constructed under the supervision of Columbus A. Hughes, was a pride to the city. Costing $35,000, the two-story brick building, measuring 50’ x 70’, boasted a wooden, two-tiered tower topped by a cupola (a small dome usually topping a tower) and bronze eagle.
Later, in September 1864 after the capture of Atlanta, this site was used by troops of the 2d Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry to bivouac, although the city hall building was spared from destruction.
After the capital was moved to Atlanta, this building served as Georgia’s statehouse from July 1868 to January 1869. The shortness of its use in this fashion came from the overcrowded conditions in the structure. In fact, from the first it was obvious that the building would either have to be enlarged or the state legislature provided other facilities.
On August 4, 1868, Atlanta’s city council met with a committee of the House of Representatives on this matter, with the city offering to either construct an addition to city hall or to complete an unfinished opera house in Atlanta for use by legislators. The legislature chose the latter.
Kimball Opera House
The story of what would become Atlanta’s second capitol traces to 1867, when the Atlanta Opera House and Building Association acquired the southwest corner of Marietta and Forsyth Streets and initiated construction of a five-story opera house. By 1868, the outside walls had been erected, but the Association’s funds by now were depleted, and construction was halted with only a brick exterior standing. At a receiver’s sale on June 2, 1868, the unfinished opera house and the land on which it stood were purchased by Edwin N. Kimball for $31,750.
Within two months, Kimball and his brother were pushing the idea of completing this building and outfitting it for use by the legislature, with the Kimballs promising to have it ready by January 1, 1869. Their proposal also stipulated that Atlanta would rent a portion of the building for five years at $6,000 per year and turn over the rented portion to the state. At the end of the five years, they assumed that the legislature would purchase the building or authorize the erection of a new statehouse at another location.
During the following year, a number of controversies arose out of the financial arrangements for the new capitol. First, the proposal by Kimball had not mentioned heating, lighting, carpets, and furniture. Therefore, between October and December 1868, Governor Bullock arranged for payments of $54,000 of state funds to the Kimballs to provide for these necessities. However, Bullock did not report these payments to the state treasurer, defending his action by the fact that they were necessary for the legislature to have a place to meet.
By January 1869, the new building–which would serve as state capitol for the next two decades – was ready for occupation by the state legislature. However, in August 1869, E.N. Kimball conveyed the property to his brother, H.I. Kimball, with the deed noting that the property was unencumbered except for a $60,000 mortgage held by the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company. A year later, H.I. Kimball sold the land and building to the state for $250,000 in state bonds. The state, however, was unaware of the outstanding $60,000 mortgage, and when this came to light, legislators were so angered that many advocated returning the capital to Milledgeville. At this point, Atlanta city officials, fearful that Atlanta might lose its new position as state capital, stepped in and paid off the $60,000 mortgage, with the mortgage transferred to the city and later canceled.
Despite the controversy surrounding the financial aspects of the Kimball Opera House, its opening to the public on the evening of January 12, 1869, was a gala event. As the Atlanta Constitution reported the opening in its morning edition:
Last evening presented a scene long to be remembered by our citizens who had the pleasure of being present at the opening of the “so-called” Opera House, which, from dome to basement, was brilliantly illuminated with gas. The exterior of the edifice presents a perfect blaze of light that arrested the attention of every passerby, and the immense throng of people who were hurrying toward the building gave evidence that everybody, and his wife, if not invited, were quite sure to be present on the night of opening this beautiful establishment. Entering the House of Representatives, the ear was delighted with the sweetest music produced by the military band of this post; who, we venture to assert, have no superior in the Army of the United States. Immediately above their head was the full length portrait of that brave old military chieftain and peerless gentleman, “Old Hickory,” a man whose name will never, never die. The house is brilliantly lighted by a circular of gas jets some thirty feet from the floor, and at least fifteen feet in its diameter. All around these jets was placed a fluted glass mirror, that threw the bright rays of light completely over the room, rendering all side lights completely unnecessary. The fresco work on the ceiling, and indeed all over the room, was really magnificent, and elicited loud marks of approval from all who visited the building. The Senate Chamber is very beautiful, though not so imposing as the House of Representatives. Over the seat of the President of the Senate is a full length portrait of George Washington, the first rebel known in American history, from the celebrated painting of Gilbert Stuart. It is very beautiful, and an ornament to the Senate Chamber. The Supreme Court Library contains two full length portraits: the one on the left of the Hall representing Benjamin Franklin, the Printer, Philosopher and Statesman, and the other, on the right, of the gallant Lafayette. The Committee rooms deserve special notice for the extreme good taste in which they have been arranged, but the apartments upstairs, the doors of which were all marked: “Sleeping Room–For Rent,” were in bad taste to say the least of it. They might very properly have been reserved for the use of the attaches of the building, but the idea of making a cheap lodging house out of the top of so elegant a building seems really absurd.
In October 1870, the General Assembly approved state purchase of the Kimball Opera House, with records indicating the Governor Bullock paid $250,000 in Georgia bonds for the building. Twenty years later, the state would sell this building for $132,241.56, with the furniture bringing in a further $2,051. Later the Western Union Building was constructed on this site.
Georgia’s Current Capitol
With the end of Reconstruction, some political figures advocated redesignating Milledgeville as Georgia’s capital city. Also under way was a movement to replace the “Reconstruction” Constitution of 1868 with a new document.
A constitutional convention met in Atlanta in 1877, and once again the question of where Georgia’s capital city would be located was brought before the body. Seven days after the convention assembled, Atlanta’s city council brought a resolution before the convention stipulating the following:
If Atlanta is selected by the Convention as the permanent Capital of the State, and if such selection is submitted to and the same is ratified by the people, the City of Atlanta will convey to the State of Georgia any ten acres of land in or near the City of Atlanta, now unoccupied, or the square in the heart of the City, known as the City Hall Lot, containing five acres of land, and bounded by a street on every side, on which to locate and build a Capitol for the state. Second, The City of Atlanta will build for the State of Georgia on the location selected a Capitol Building as good as the old Capitol building in Milledgeville.
The convention, however, decided that the question of the location of the capital be kept out of the new constitution, but passed an ordinance declaring that at the next general election, voters of the state would decide between Atlanta and Milledgeville, with such election “to operate and take effect as an amendment to the present Constitution.” Soon a spirited competition developed between the two cities over which should be the site of the state capital. More than a million circulars were sent out in 1877 over the Milledgeville-Atlanta battle, with nearly every Georgia newspaper taking a position on the issue.
Speeches were made across the state, with Milledgeville supporters associating Atlanta with the abuses of Reconstruction, also arguing that the temptations of the big city were too great for members of the legislature. Additionally, Milledgeville supporters pointed to the capitol building awaiting the return of the state government, whereas new facilities would have to be constructed if the capital remained in Atlanta. On the other side, Atlanta supporters pointed to the growing importance of Atlanta within the state, especially pointing to the superior rail facilities of the city.
On December 5, 1877, voters across Georgia reaffirmed Atlanta as the capital city of Georgia by a vote of 99,147 to 55,201. Two years later, in 1879, the legislature accepted Atlanta’s proposal and selected the city hall as the site for the new capitol. However, rather than having Atlanta build the capitol–as the offer originally stipulated that Atlanta would build for the state a capitol “as good as the old Capitol building in Milledgeville”–the legislature set a value of the old capitol building in Milledgeville at $55,625 and agreed that should Atlanta pay this amount to the state, plus pay off a $60,000 mortgage on the Kimball Opera House, the state would assume the cost and responsibility of constructing a new capitol. Atlanta agreed to this condition, and the way was now paved for building a new capitol.
Unfortunately, the state’s financial condition prevented immediate construction of a new statehouse. Not until September 1883 did lawmakers appropriate $1,000000 for the construction of a new capitol, to be raised by a special capitol tax of $250,000 a year for four years.
The act had a number of stipulations concerning the task ahead:
- The cost of construction could not exceed $1 million.
- Construction should be finished by January 1, 1889.
- The capitol “shall be built of granite, rock and marble, as far as practicable, and all the materials used in the construction of said building shall be those found and procured within the State of Georgia; provided that same can be procured in said state as cheaply as other materials of like quality in other states.”
- The construction would be under the supervision of a board of commissioners, joined by the Governor as ex officio chairman of the board.
The board advertised for bids from across the nation on October 6, 1883, and the following February awarded the competition to the Chicago architectural firm of Edbrooke and Burnham. Judging the competition for the board was a famous New York architect, George B. Post. Post selected the Edbrooke and Burnham design, explaining that it was more academic than the others, simple while still elegant, and monumental in its appearance. The classic Renaissance style was one of “beauty, strength and harmony.”
Although a design for the capitol had been approved, bids for actual construction disappointed the board. Of the three received, one proposed using marble at a cost of $1,014,960.41, while another proposed a capitol of granite for $1,141,784.07.
Everyone had assumed that the capitol would be built of Georgia marble or granite. Actually, a legislative committee visited the marble area in Pickens County to determine if there was an adequate supply of marble to build the capitol. The committee reported uncertainty about the supply, that there were few quarries, tools, and machinery, and that likely it would be prohibitively expensive to use Georgia stone. Soon after that report, the Georgia Marble Company was organized and soon would supply a great deal of marble used in the interior of the capitol. Also, since that time, it has been discovered that Georgia has enough marble to build every capitol in America without really affecting the marble deposits. In fact, Georgia marble was later used to build the state capitols in Minnesota and Rhode Island, the Lincoln Monument in Washington, D.C., and many of the office buildings in Georgia’s state capital complex.
The next assumption was that granite from nearby Stone Mountain or from Elbert County would be the material used to construct the capitol, but here too it was discovered that Georgia quarries were insufficiently developed and the costs would be excessive.
Thus, all three initial bids were rejected, and the board advertised for new bids. This time, 10 bids were submitted, and the Toledo, Ohio construction firm of Miles and Horn was selected on the basis of its $862,756.75 bid. Miles and Horn, however, proposed the use of Indiana oolithic limestone as the chief building material.
The board justified the use of Indiana limestone on the basis of the impracticality and the expense of using Georgia marble or granite and that competitors possessed superior facilities for the quarrying and dressing of the stone.
It should be noted, however, that the cornerstone, all interior floors and steps, and many walls of the capitol were constructed of Georgia marble. Along the sides of walls on the second floor is Etowah marble, noted for its pink hue. In all, the marble used in the interior would cover almost 1 1/2 acres, and ironically cost $12,000 more than all of the Indiana limestone used in constructing the entire capitol. And, if some pride was salvaged by using marble in the interior of the capitol, additional pride came from the fact that Georgia granite was used for the foundation of the building.
The old city hall-county courthouse, which had served as the first statehouse in Atlanta, was put for sale at auction on October 15, 1884. The winning bid to tear it down was for $975, and on October 27th the building was razed. However, salvaged from the old city hall were about 500,000 bricks that would be used in the new state capitol.
On November 13, 1884, construction on the new capitol began, although it was 10 months before the cornerstone was laid. On September 2, 1885, an estimated 10,000 people were present to watch the setting of the marble cornerstone.
Construction of the capitol took nearly four and a half years, with approximately 250 workmen involved. During this time, large steam-powered derricks, pulleys, and rock polishing machines were set up. One reporter for the Atlanta Constitution observed the following:
“The visitor to the grounds will be amazed at the size and weight of the huge blocks of stone used in the material, and surprised at the ease and facility with which they are moved and placed in position by the steam derricks, pulleys, and every modern appliance for handling the heavy materials. In the basement are found a number of workmen engaged in laying cement, polishing stone, making ornamental cornices, and plastering. Huge engines were furnishing steam for the listing apparatus; fires all aglow, managed by soot-begrimed firemen, reminded one of a blast furnace in Tallapoosa.”
Although the original act authorizing construction of the capitol had stipulated a completion date of January 1, 1889, it was not until March 20, 1889, that construction was formally completed and the keys delivered to Governor John B. Gordon.
The Kimball Opera House had continued to serve as Georgia’s statehouse, but on July 3, 1889, the members of the General Assembly marched as a body from the Kimball building to the new capitol. On that next day, July 4, formal dedication of the capitol occurred. In thanking the members of the commission that had overseen the construction, Governor Gordon concluded with these remarks:
“Built upon the crowning hill of her capital city, whose transformation from desolation and ashes to life, thrift and beauty, so aptly symbolizes the State’s resurrection, this proud structure will stand through the coming centuries a fit memorial of the indomitable will of this people.”
The capitol commissioners took no small amount of pride in the fact that the task had been accomplished without exceeding the original appropriation. In their final report, the commissioners listed the expenditures as follows:
Aggregate amount for work and materials, $897,210.48 Salaries of five commissioners, five and one-half years, $27,500.00 Architects' salaries, drawings, etc., $25,000.00 Salaries of superintendents, $10,626.00 Additional land bought to "square" lot, $20,000.00 Frescoing halls and offices, $10,645.00 Miscellaneous, $8,900.09 Grant total, $999,881.57 Appropriated for capitol, $1,000,000.00 Balance left in treasury, $118.40
This amount was returned to the state treasury–a remarkable feat–supplemented by $135,292 from the sale of the Kimball statehouse the following year.
Housed in the new capitol were the Offices of Governor, Treasurer, Comptroller General, Agricultural Commissioner, Attorney General, Adjutant General, School Commissioner, State Chemist, Geology Department, Railroad Commission, Secretary of State, State Library, Principal Keeper of the Penitentiary, and the State Physician. Additionally located here were the Supreme Court and the General Assembly. For the latter, in addition to the House and Senate chambers, offices for the speaker and clerk of the House and the president and secretary of the Senate were provided, as well as 23 committee rooms.
Essentially, as of 1889, this was most of Georgia’s state government, except for the field offices and employees. In any event, it was said that there were as many vacant rooms in the capitol as occupied at this time. In fact, some of the rooms on the top floor were used as bedrooms for the family of the Adjutant General, who served as Keeper of Public Buildings. It is reported that one assistant Adjutant General who lived there with his family of seven children had the misfortune to lose one who fell out the window from these quarters.
If the capitol was only half filled in 1889, the growth of government was such that the Keeper of Public Buildings, in his 1910 report to the legislature, was calling for the need to build an annex, which he predicted would be “an absolute necessity” within a few years. Indeed, state agencies soon began branching out to offices in downtown Atlanta. Usually, the main office of a state agency would retain headquarters within the capitol, with records and subordinate offices moving into rented office space away from the capitol.
During the 1930s and 1940s, the state erected several buildings for use by state agencies, also purchasing several existing structures for conversion into state office space. A major problem, however, prohibiting more positive action by the state to build sufficient office space was a constitutional prohibition against the state incurring debt. It was difficult for the state to finance the cost of constructing major office buildings within a single appropriation act, and the constitution prohibited carrying the debt over several years.
In the early 1950s, the state created its first public authority as a means of circumventing the constitutional provision against debt. An “authority” is a public corporation created by the legislature to perform a particular function. Legally, an authority is not an official state agency–though it is created to serve the state–and can thus incur debt, where state agencies in the 1950s could not. Therefore, an authority was created to borrow money to finance construction of state office buildings. The state then “rented” these facilities from the authorities at an annual rate to pay off this debt as each year’s installment became due.
The authority responsible for financing and building state office buildings in the capitol complex was the Georgia Building Authority, which continues today with general authority for construction and maintenance of state office buildings in Atlanta.
Architectural Style of the Capitol
In contrast to the 18th century Georgian-styled Louisville statehouse and the Gothic-inspired capitol at Milledgeville, Georgia’s current capitol is depicted as Classic Renaissance in architectural style. Classic Renaissance arose during the 1400s and 1500s in Italy, originating out of an era when interest was renewed in the culture of ancient Greece and Rome.
The genealogy of the Georgia capitol traces to the ancient Roman Pantheon, built around 120 A.D. This edifice, still standing today, bears a striking resemblance to many capitol buildings of American states, as well as to several notable churches of the world.
In the early 1,400s, the Cathedral of Florence revived the dome in architectural popularity, followed shortly by St. Peter’s Church in Rome, whose dome was designed by Michelangelo. St. Peter’s architectural style unmistakably serves as a pattern for capitols in many states, with the dome of the Minnesota capitol an almost identical replica.
Sir Christopher Wren, who designed Saint Paul’s Church in London in the late 1600s, continued the Classic Renaissance style, and from the front entrance, excluding towers on the extreme left and right, Saint Paul’s bears a striking resemblance to the Georgia capitol as seen from its main entrance.
During the 1780s, prior to the end of the Revolutionary War, Maryland’s legislature authorized the remodeling of Maryland’s statehouse, including the addition of a dome, the first in America.
By the end of the Revolutionary War, there were at least nine statehouses in use, all of Georgian architectural style. Following the war, however, designers of governmental buildings in this country looked to the classical forms of ancient Greece and Rome. Prominent in this new direction was Thomas Jefferson, who felt the new American states embodied the spirit of the ancient republics of Greece and Rome, and that their ancient temples embodied a dignity that should befit public buildings in this new country.
Jefferson, who had the most complete architectural library in America, was particularly interested in the revival of Greek classical architecture in Italy, and encouraged a young architect, Charles Bulfinch, to study the style in France and Rome. Subsequently, in 1785, Bulfinch designed a new capitol for Massachusetts, completed 10 years later as a domed statehouse. In later years, he would also be involved in construction of the U.S. capitol, serving from 1817 to 1830 as capitol architect.
To many Americans, the dome soon became a symbol of democratic government. Not only would the national capitol and many state capitols adopt this architectural feature, but the dome also became a prominent feature of numerous county courthouses and city halls across America.
Pennsylvania’s old capitol (no longer standing), completed in 1821, became the general pattern for state capitol buildings in this country. The addition of a dome on the nation’s capitol during the Civil War further solidified the role of the dome on statehouse buildings during the next four decades. It was during this period that Georgia authorized its first domed state capitol.
Interestingly, the era of the dome ended with World War I, and of all state capitols constructed since that time, only one, West Virginia’s, has included a dome. Still, 39 state capitols have the characteristic dome, and undoubtedly this survives as one of the symbols of democracy in this nation. While professional architects often criticized the style of these capitols at the time of their construction, popular opinion generally was weighed in favor of the dome and the other features we so commonly associate with what a capitol building should look like.
At the time of its construction, Georgia’s capitol was the tallest building in Atlanta, rising 272’ 4 1/2” from the ground floor. At its greatest length, it is 347’ 9”. In contrast, our nation’s capitol is 287’ 5 1/2” in total height, and 350’ in width. Among state capitol buildings, Georgia’s ranks 12th in height. In the South, only the 34-story, 450-foot-high Louisiana capitol (built as a modern skyscraper) and the 311-foot-high Texas capitol are taller than Georgia’s capitol.
Until the early 1980s, Georgia’s capitol was the tallest of all buildings in the capitol complex. Many people assumed that state law or tradition prevented any other building in the complex from exceeding the height of the capitol. In the U.S. capitol complex, such a tradition apparently is in effect, precluding construction of any office building in the immediate vicinity of the national capitol which would exceed its height. However, in Georgia no such rule exists. In fact, the Twin Towers office building across the street from the capitol well exceeds the height of the capitol.
For a number of years, an observation room atop the capitol dome was a popular site for residents of Atlanta and visitors to the city. There, a panoramic view of the city and countryside was available, including a view of both Stone Mountain and Kennesaw Mountain. It is even reported that earlier in this century, at least one couple chose to be married in this room, even though it was a grueling climb of several hundred steps in winding stairways for the wedding party. Because of safety reasons, this observation area has been closed to the public.
The outer dimensions of the dome are estimated to be approximately 75’ in diameter. Above this dome is the observation area, topped by a smaller dome, called a cupola, with a statue atop that.
Mystery of the Capitol Statue
Atop Georgia’s capitol is a statue of a woman with a torch in one hand and a sword in the other. Several legends have arisen over this statue as to who she is, what she represents, and how she came to adorn Georgia’s capitol.
A popular tradition has been that the statue was originally created for the Ohio capitol, but when that state could not afford her, she was bought by Georgia for its capitol, then under construction. During the 1950s, then State Librarian Ella Mae Thornton attempted to clear up the mystery. First, she demonstrated evidence that a statue was called for in the architect’s original plans for the Georgia capitol. She also found that the statue was built in Salem, Ohio, by the Mullins Manufacturing Corporation, although no records could be traced to the original order for the statue.
More recently, Ohio officials have researched the question of whether original plans for the Ohio capitol called for a statue. They found that a great deal of controversy accompanied construction of that capitol, with five separate architects employed. It is known that Ohio ran out of money for construction at one point, and it took a total of 23 years for its completion.
It is plausible that with the controversy over the Ohio capitol, the different architects responsible for its design, and the lack of funds for its construction a statue may have been authorized at one point, with the state later unable to afford it or deciding not to use a statue. At this point, the state of Georgia, needing a statue for its capitol, could have purchased the statue. More likely, however, the statue was built specifically for Georgia’s capitol. But we may never know.
Another aspect of the statue’s mystery is her name. State researchers have long sought to find if she was ever given an official name. In recent decades, she has been unofficially designated “Miss Freedom.” It is not known whether she was ever given an official name, though there is the suggestion that if she was, that name in fact was “Goddess of Liberty.” An Atlanta Constitution reporter accompanying Captain W.H. Harrison, secretary of the board of capitol commissioners, on a tour of the capitol while still under construction reported Captain Harrison’s commen:
“It will be a grand sight when the interior of the dome is lighted with electric lights, the lantern brilliantly illuminated by electricity, and there is a flaming torch in the hand of the Goddess of Liberty that will be visible at night for miles and miles around.”
The statue stands between 15 and 20 feet high, depending on how she is measured, weighs about 1,800 pounds, and is made of copper. The fact that she is painted white leads many visitors viewing from the capitol grounds to assume the statue has been carved from stone.
At night, the torch in her hand is lighted. Although it was planned from the first that a light would be placed within the torch, it was not until 1959 that this was actually achieved. A five-inch tube was placed through her arm, with a retractable trolley so that the light bulb can be changed from the inside.
Renovating the Capitol
By the capitol’s 40th birthday, the wear and tear on the building was beginning to show, and Governor L.G. Hardman was pushing for legislative support for renovating the structure. In 1929, the General Assembly appropriated $250,000 for this purpose, though $55,000 of the amount was used to buy two pieces of land adjacent to the capitol for future construction of an annex.
A major need was for additional office space within the capitol. The ground floor had been left essentially unfinished and served as a basement for the building, with portions also serving as stables for the horses and carriages of state officials. Though some of the basement had been converted to office space during the years following the capitol’s construction, the 1929 renovation was used to complete the first floor as office space.
The paint on the capitol’s interior had begun to flake and peel and in 1929 was repainted using brighter colors. Autographs were removed from the walls leading to the dome, while the building was rewired, pipes replaced, and new elevators installed.
Six years later, in 1935, additional renovation was undertaken on the dome. In 1938, the state and federal government’s Public Works Administration spent $50,000 for additional renovation. And, in 1947, a small amount of money was further expended for repairs.
By the 1950s, several critical problems had surfaced, and state officials were faced with the need for major renovation. Of all problems, the dome needed the greatest attention. The dome and surrounding areas were originally intended to be constructed of limestone, as was the rest of the capitol. But, to keep costs within the limit set by the legislature in 1883, wood and pressed tin were used in many places, particularly on the upper portions. In the end, not only the dome was covered with tin, but the balustrades, large columns below the dome, and various other ornamental portions were made from tin.
Although the board of capitol commissioners had been particularly proud of the fact they had completed their project without exceeding the $1,000,000 limit, it had now become apparent how that accomplishment had been achieved. By the 1950s, portions of the tin on the dome had almost blown off, and the area became so dangerous that Secretary of State Fortson closed the dome to the general public around 1954. Water seepage was so bad through the dome and roof that the fourth floor ceiling had begun to disintegrate, with paint and plaster curling and peeling off. In many places, the tin had rusted through and the wood underneath rotted out. The deterioration was so great that the legislature finally appointed a committee to examine the capitol, particularly after the urging of Secretary of State Fortson and Governor Marvin Griffin.
Initially, it was estimated that the cost of repair would be $600,000, of which almost one-third of the cost, $200,000, would go to setting up the scaffold. In 1957, the General Assembly authorized funds for renovating the capitol, with the project to be under the responsibility of the secretary of state. During this undertaking, some 2,000,000 pounds of Indiana limestone would be hauled up the scaffolds to replace the rotting tin and wood areas beneath and above the dome. Under the cupola, stainless steel walls were added, and new metal roofing topped the fourth floor.
During this project, 16 tin columns beneath the dome were replaced by columns of limestone. Each of these columns is estimated to weigh 10 tons. The columns were cut into four pieces, hauled up the scaffold’s elevator, rolled like logs onto small hydraulic trolleys, and carried across plywood walkways on the scaffolding.
Adding the Gold to the Capitol Dome
During a 1957 renovation of Georgia’s capitol, the idea was proposed that the deteriorated tin-covered dome be replaced by a more attractive and durable surface, to then be covered by a gilding of Georgia gold. Credit for this idea goes to two people: Thomas Bradbury, the architect in charge of renovating the capitol, and Gordon Price, a Dahlonega-born engineer living in Atlanta.
Bradbury, in his original plans for remodeling the capitol, suggested gilding the dome with gold, but to gild only the 16 ribs on the dome and the cupola or smaller dome on which the statue rests. Governor Griffin had initially turned this idea down because of the extra cost for the gold. Price, however, met with Bradbury, state officials, and the Dahlonega Chamber of Commerce, suggesting the possibility that citizens from Dahlonega and Lumpkin County might donate the gold to the state. On April 25, 1958, the chamber voted to make the gold collection a local project, and the state accepted the proposal.
Within a week, 20 ounces of gold had been pledged from citizens of an area which 131 years earlier had been the site of the nation’s first gold rush. Dahlonega Jaycees set May 25 as “Panning Day” to take to the hills and streams to search for gold. Not only was new gold being sought, but a campaign was initiated to seek donations of Dahlonega gold from people who had collected souvenirs of north Georgia gold in earlier days. In addition to the pride of contributing gold for the capitol dome that they would feel, the name of each person who gave gold would be placed on a plaque to be located within the capitol.
Secretary of State Fortson accepted the chairmanship of the gold dome project, which by the end of July had collected the 43 ounces of gold estimated as necessary to cover the dome.
On August 4, 1958, a caravan of seven mule-drawn covered wagons left Dahlonega with the gold contained in a chest that reportedly had belonged to William Few, a Georgia signer of the United States Constitution in 1787. The three-day trip to Atlanta, during which time the wagon train averaged about three miles an hour, reached Atlanta on August 6, 1958. The next day, in ceremonies on the steps of the state capitol, the gold was presented to Governor Griffin. Thereafter the gold was sent to Philadelphia, where it was milled into gold leaf 1/5,000th of an inch thick, or about the thickness of the tinfoil when peeled from a chewing gum wrapper.
Before the gold could be applied to the dome, the dome had to be covered with several coats of asphalt and cement because of the uneven surface of the terra cotta tiles that had been located under the original tin. Then the dome was covered with shingles of monel metal, a gray colored alloy of copper and nickel. These 18-inch square shingles were attached by means of barbed nails, with each shingle secured to the one below it. Finely milled gold leaf was then attached after a coat of sizing was applied to the monel shingles.
Regilding the Capitol Dome
At the time the gold was applied, it was thought it would last 30 or 40 years. Unfortunately, the gold was applied during the winter months. At the time, the engineers thought it would be best to apply the gold during cold weather because there aren’t any bugs to fly into the sizing then. However, since that time it has been discovered that the gold leaf won’t bond properly when it is applied during cold weather.
Another problem with a gold dome, however, is that because of the thinness of the leaf, it is susceptible to wearing away due to oxidation and weather. For instance, officials in one state with a gold dome report that after every hail storm a number of people can be observed at the base of the capitol looking for flakes of gold knocked off by the hail stones.
As of 1977, only 19 years after application, almost half of the gold was gone from the dome. Concern over the disappearing gold and the dome’s appearance led a number of Georgians and state officials to explore how the dome might be regilded. Rather than rely on the state legislature to appropriate the money, it was decided to seek public support for the project. The Dahlonega-Lumpkin County Jaycees again committed their organization to raising the gold for the project, with overall responsibility for regilding to be assumed by the Georgia Building Authority, which has responsibility for the capitol and other government buildings.
Using the theme “Make Georgia a Shining Example,” a fund-raising campaign was initiated to sell bumper stickers, booklets, buttons, and T-shirts. Additionally, citizens or groups could make a donation to cover the cost of placing one 18” x 18” square of gold leaf on the dome.
An important part of the fund-raising campaign was also conceived: a wagon train to cross the state, visiting each of the state’s former capitals. This wagon train, under wagonmaster Frank Rickman of Clayton, assembled on the beaches of Jekyll Island in May 1979, with a total of 30 wagons. After a journey of almost six weeks, the wagon train pulled up to the city limits of Dahlonega in June 1979, where Governor George Busbee boarded the lead Conestoga wagon to drive the wagon for the final few miles.
When school started that fall, many schools and classes undertook raising funds for the gold dome as a special project, and contributions were received from thousands of students.
By Thanksgiving weekend, enough gold for the dome had been collected, and the wagon train reassembled for the final leg of the journey. This time, about 75 wagons plus hundreds of riders joined the train. Despite a steady rain throughout the three-day trip, spirits were not dampened, and on the afternoon of November 25, the wagon train, after following the same journey of its predecessor in 1958, pulled into Piedmont Park. The next morning, a bright sun greeted the wagon train for the final two miles of the trip, and on the steps of the capitol at noon the governor in brief remarks accepted the gold destined for the dome, carried in the same chest of William Few’s that was used in 1958.
This time, a great deal of care had gone into the preparation of the dome for proper bonding of the gold leaf. Under the watchful eye of Manos Tsitsilianos and his family of Greek artisans, the gold was applied in a special process which should keep the dome brilliant well into the 21st century.
Visitors to the capitol may wonder how unique Georgia is in having a gold-domed capitol. In addition to Georgia, nine other states have capitol domes covered with gold leaf: Colorado, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Wyoming. Of these, those of Iowa and Georgia are the two largest gilded domes.
Georgia’s state capitol is one of the few capitols in the United States that also houses the state museum. The story of this museum is interesting, as it came into being by accident. In 1896, some of the items displayed by Georgia at the Cotton States and International Exposition held in Atlanta the previous year were placed in the corridors of the 4th floor of the capitol, with other items located in the basement (actually the first floor).
Popularity of these exhibits led to the addition of other exhibits, and, in time, the 4th floor evolved into a museum. In 1955, the legislature formally designated the exhibits as the State Museum of Science and Industry and placed the museum under the direction of the Office of the Secretary of State.
In time, the “State Museum” was an eclectic assortment of rocks, guns, prehistoric artifacts, animals (whether native to Georgia or not), displays, diorams, and numerous other items. Several studies of the future of the museum were conducted. Some called on a new state museum to be created in a new or existing building in the state capitol complex–though funding was always a problem. As the 1996 Summer Olympics approached, efforts were made to update the collections and displays on the 4th floor of the capitol. By 1998, work was under way for a new concept for a state museum–one focusing on the importance of the capitol to the people of Georgia.
State Capitol Complex
At the time of its dedication, the Georgia capitol was only half filled with occupants. In fact, some of the rooms on the top floor were reportedly used as bedrooms for the family of the Adjutant General, who served as Keeper of Public Buildings. Twenty years later, however, state government had grown to the point that the Adjutant General declared the need for a capitol annex.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the state erected several new buildings for use by state agencies, also purchasing some existing structures adjacent to the capitol for office space. In the early 1950s, the Georgia Building Authority was created by the legislature and empowered to borrow money to finance construction of new state office buildings.
Today, most agencies of Georgia state government have their headquarters in an area known as the “State Capitol Complex,” which consists of all or parts of 10 square blocks surrounding the state capitol.
The latest addition to the complex is the 20 story Twin Towers Office Building, officially designated the James “Sloppy” Floyd Veteran Memorial Building. Constructed in the early 1980s, this is the first office building in the complex to rise over the capitol in height. Its high-rise style was part of a capitol complex master plan for future state office buildings. However, since completion of Twin Towers, no new state office buildings have been constructed in the capitol complex, with the governor and General Assembly instead preferring that state agencies rent or lease private-sector office space in downtown Atlanta. However, the old Health Building across the street from the state capitol was converted into the Legislative Office Building in the late 1980s, and, in the 1990s, a new state parking deck was built to the east of Twin Towers.