Architectural Analysis: Alabama State Capitol Building
The original Capitol Building for the state of Alabama, in Montgomery, was a Greek revival building designed by Stephen Decatur Button. The construction was completed in 1847 atop Goat Hill in Montgomery. It was a large two story building with a partially exposed basement built of stuccoed bricks. In the front of the building was a large portico supported by 6 composite columns. On top of the portico was a large Pediment. The building was topped with a large dome and cupola. Although a great example of the style, this structure burned down in 1849. Construction on the new building started the following year and was completed by 1851 on the same site. The architect for the new Capitol Building was Barachias Holt. The structure was actually built in stages, starting with the rotunda in 1851, at a cost of $60,000. The east wing was added in February 1885, at a cost of $25,000. The south wing came next at the cost of $150,000 in 1906. Finally the North wing was added for the price of $100,000 in 1911. The building from the western side is 350 ft wide and 120 ft tall. The exterior walls have a white marble finish with unknown construction materials. The original purpose of the building was to house the Government for the State of Alabama but in 1961 the building transitioned to the First Capitol of the Confederacy. With the surrender of the Confederate states of America, the structure returned to it’s original purpose until 1985, when the Alabama Statehouse was completed to house the Senate and House of Representatives. This continued until flood damage forced the Legislative Branch to reconvene inside the Capitol Building in 2009.
One of the most interesting things about the Alabama Capital Building is that it is the only Capital to house both state (Alabama) and national (Confederate States of America) governments, although for a short time only.
The present Alabama Capitol Building was another example of Greek Revival. I will divide the building into two sections during my description. The main partition of the building will include the west façade, the rotunda, and the length of the building; extending east to the eastern façade. The other partition will be the north and south wings respectively.
The main Partition of the structure includes the front of the building, the west façade. The west façade is dominated by a large three story portico supported by six composite columns. The columns are centered on a set of doors with 2 sets of windows on either side. Above the main entrance is a second door leading to a balcony that extends to the windows on either side. On the third floor is another doorway and balcony which covers the central area between the columns. It was on these balconies that Jefferson Davis was sworn into office as the first, and only, President of the Confederate States of America. On the top of the columns is a large classical cornice. The bottom of the cornice, the architrave or epistyle, is a simple with the exception of molding running the width of it approximately centered. An architrave is a type of lintel or beam that directs the weight of the cornice, pediment, and roof structure onto the capitals and, therefore, columns below. Above that is the frieze, the piece between the architrave and cornice. This is adorned by notched molding. Above this is the actual cornice itself. The cornice is a ledge that extends from the rooftop of a building and may include the protruding edge of gabled roofs, as in modern homes.On the roof of the western portico is a 3 sided clock. The analog clock is black with silver lettering and displays time utilizing Roman Numerals. On top of the clock are 4 small pediments. To either side of the western portico are three more sets of windows; between each is a rectangular pilaster. Further eastward into the main partition is the rotunda. The rotunda of the Alabama Capitol Building is capped with a drum capped with a dome. The drum itself rises from the cross section of the building up to a balcony area. The balcony area consists of a railed walkway and approximately twelve columns supporting the dome. Between each column is a large window. As part of the dome a second architrave is present, directing the weight of the dome onto the columns. The dome itself is not perfectly spherical, as it has twelve sides corresponding to the area between each column. On top of the dome is a small cupola. The cupola is given the distinction of supporting the flag pole that displays the Alabama State flag and the United States Flag; at one point the a Confederate States flag was displayed from the same point.
Further back from the central rotunda, the building has no other specific influences. The cornice, as formerly described, continues to the east. Sets of windows along the north and south sides of the partition are separated by the same rectangular pilasters. Toward the eastern portico, the windows turn into three sets of blind, or false, windows.
The final piece of the main partition is the eastern façade. The façade is similar to the western façade in that displays a large three story portico supported by 4 fluted, Corinthian or composite columns. The columns support the same cornice as displayed on other pieces of the main partition. The façade has one doorway with two sets of windows above them. On either side is another set of blind windows. One unique aspect of this side of the building is direct access to the basement levels. This is achieved by the doorways below the base of the columns. To either side of these doorways a single story set of windows extend to the north and south, separated by rectangular pilasters. On top of this area is a patio that can be accessed by the main doorway of the eastern façade and the Capitol Building grounds.
The wings of the building are separated from the main structure by hyphens. The wings support different architectural details compared to the main structure. For instance, the main building and hyphens are distinguished by rectangular pilasters between windows, while the wings display pilasters that exhibit qualities found in ionic columns. This style is complete with a faux architrave above the pilasters. The cornice appears to be of the same design of the main building but the entrance into the wings, the north and south facades display porticos supported by six columns, similar to the western façade, but the columns are of the Ionic orders. The hyphens boast two ionic columns each, facing the western side of the building with a small portico for each.
The layout of the building looks like a T if viewed from above while looking to the west. This allows direct sunlight to shine on the bulk of the windows of the building throughout the day, with the exception of the northern side of the main partition.
When I view a structure such as the Alabama Capitol Building, I’m filled with thoughts of admiration and marvel. The buildings simplistic classical design and symmetry gives you a unique sensation, the imposing strength and resolve of the State of Alabama. When I view it I look at other State and Federal buildings and see many of the same attributes. Buildings such as the US Capitol display similar features, the display of width, rather than depth, the symmetry of the wings, the display of the columns over a central portico. Finally it is, of course, a reminder of Ancient Greece. It displays a hexastyle (six column design) often displayed by classical Greece in the front and sides but a tetrastyle in the east, similar to Greek or Etruscan design. I’ve been lucky enough to see these styles while traveling through Italy, such as parts of Rome, the temple ruins in Segesta, Italy (displaying hexastyle), and other parts of Sicily. It’s parts like this that truly define Greek Revival.
The size and functionality of the building make it a success, as well as the exhibit of the authority of the state. The use of ornate architectural features like columns and architraves, that provide structural support and stability, gives it a refined taste while an aesthetic value at the same time. Its failures include the deviation from the Greek revival style in the failure to place a pediment over the porticos and the placement of three different types of columns through it’s different phases of construction. I believe functionality keeps it above par, even when compared to the original building. The original Capitol Building boasted three pediments along with hexastyle column placement. Although the front portico shows resemblance to the newer structure and may have been the inspiration for the current design.The work itself still displays elements of Greek revival. The white color, use of geometric shapes, the ionic, Corinthian, and contemporary columns, and the pilasters; to give the appearance of an open classical Greek design are all good guidelines. The use of right angles in the windows, layout of the building, and directions of the wings; give tribute to the order of Greco-roman construction. The symmetry of the building, the use of hexastyle, and tetrastyle reach back to ancient Greece. Even the placement of the building, on the top of a prominent hill, compliments the style, when compared to such buildings as the Parthenon of Athens.After reviewing other Capitol buildings, I don’t believe this is very original. Throughout the US, the Neoclassical and Greek or Roman revival methods have been used in the design of government buildings. This Building, although unique in its own right, follows a trend that takes away from its innovativeness.
More to come
I've decided that I'm going to continue to write architectural analyses of buildings. I've got a nice list going that I'm going to start researching and writing soon.
If you want a specific building, post a comment and I'll see if I can get to it.