Michigan’s Capitol(s)

Michigan State Capitol. Photo by David Siwik

by David Siwik, Præteritum Editor

Michigan’s current state house is actually the third; the first was in Detroit (the present day Capitol Park in downtown Detroit is named accordingly), the second was located a couple blocks away from where the current building sits in downtown Lansing.

Designed by Elijah E. Myers and built between 1872 and 1878, the Michigan legislature and Governor moved into the new building on January 1, 1879, in one of the grandest celebrations ever held in Michigan.  Folks came from near and far through the cold and snowy terrain to attend the ceremonial opening of Michigan’s new house of the people. Originally lit by gas chandeliers on the inside, and gas street lamps on the outside, she has been a site to encounter in the dark of night (or early morning) in downtown Lansing ever since.  One of the attendees of the opening celebration remarked upon leaving in the evening that the building was lit up so well that it looked as if it was a great fire burning in the pitch black night.

Michigan’s capitol was the first of the state capitols constructed after the Civil War to mimic elements of style from the US Capitol in Washington, DC.  Its neoclassical architecture emphasizes, like other civic buildings constructed in nineteenth century America, the connection of American government to the democratic and republican heritage folks at the time believed Americans had inherited from ancient Greece and Rome.  The dome symbolizes the US Capitol dome, completed during the Civil War at the insistence of President Lincoln and itself a symbol of America’s new birth of freedom born out of the death and destruction of the war.

Michigan’s capitol is really two things:  a functioning office building and a giant monument to Michigan’s contribution towards preserving the Union during the Civil War.  The name of architect Elijah E. Myers’ plan for the building, Tuebor, is Latin for “I will defend,” and refers to Michigan’s defense of the Union during the war.  It is the motto of the state of Michigan and is on its seal and flag.  Inside the building are replicas of over 130 regimental battle flags from Michigan units who served in the war.  Outside a statue of Michigan’s Civil War Governor, Austin Blair, stands guard, looking east down Michigan Avenue.

Statue of Austin Blair in front of the Michigan State Capitol, December 2016. Photo by David Siwik

Buildings are some of the greatest things the past leaves to the future; they truly are time machines, allowing us to experience a piece of life from decades or centuries ago.

Bonus:  Statues also can seem to preserve the past.  In Capitol Park in downtown Detroit, Stevens Thomson Mason, Michigan’s first state governor, is buried.  Mason was just 24 when he took office as Governor of the new state, the youngest state governor in American history.  Mason was originally buried in New York, but re-interred at the request of his sister in Detroit at a later date.  His grave has been disturbed on at least two occasions for city construction projects and for a while the exact location was not even known.  Here is a recent photo of Capitol Park.  Mason’s statue and grave are seen towards the lower middle of the photo with the Albert building in the foreground and the David Stott, Guardian and Penobscot buildings in the background.

Capitol Park
Capitol Park, downtown Detroit. Photo by David Siwik.