Artist's rendering of the Capitol Annex (became the Kanawha
County Library) present site of the National Bank of Commerce Governor Cornwell's message to the Legislature just nine days after the devastating fire, and only weeks prior to the expiration of his term of office, spoke to the need for 'erecting a building of modest size and of fitting design... to contain halls for two houses of the Legislature, a sufficient number of committee rooms, the governor's office and offices for the secretary of state and attorney general, and then constructing a modern office building nearby to house all the boards and departments'. The Senate, meeting temporarily at the Charleston Y.M.C.A., and the House of Delegates, convening at the city's Baptist Temple, on January 21, 1921, adopted Senate Joint Resolution Number Three to raise a commission composed of the board of public works, five members each from the Senate and House of Delegates, the Senate president and House speaker, and the governor, to procure plans and specifications for the erection of a capitol building. Ultimately, needs for space were assessed and plans generally drawn, and the governor was granted the power by the Legislature to appoint the Capitol Building Commission, with subsequent governors exercising the right to retain members and/or appoint new ones.
The original members of the commission were Governor Ephraim F. Morgan (Cornwell was officially succeeded after the March 1921 inauguration), President of the Senate Gohen C. Arnold, Speaker of the House of Delegates Edwin M. Keatley, William McKell, Herbert Fitzpatrick, Fred M. Staunton and N. Price Whitaker. Secretary of State Houston G. Young was named Secretary to the Commission, and stepped down in favor of a full-time paid secretary, Bonner Hill of Charleston, to coordinate the details of construction, in September of 1923. Hill had overseen the construction of Charleston's City Hall, serving as the general contractor by proxy and saving the city thousands of dollars during the project; he was chosen by the commission for his expert knowledge of construction and administration, and became the primary link in communications between the commission, the governors, the architect and the contractors. The make-up of the commission changed even before the first unit (west wing) was completed as McKell resigned in March of 1922 to be replaced by Harry P. Camden; Whitaker died in 1922 and was replaced by Virgil L. Highland, who resigned the following year and was replaced by George A. Laughlin. The Capitol Building Commission closely scrutinized the credentials and accomplishments of the country's leading architects and on July 23, 1921, selected Cass Gilbert, whose offices were in New York City, as architect of the complex. The commission found that Gilbert had more to his credit and that he came more highly recommended than any other member of his profession. His achievements were found in some of the most famous buildings in the country at the time, including the Woolworth Building in New York, which was pictured as the tallest structure in the world. To his credit were the capitol buildings of Minnesota and Arkansas, buildings of the Universities of Texas and Minnesota, the United States Treasury Annex and the United States Chamber of Commerce Building. The task of selecting a suitable site for the complex was not so clear-cut, as several locations were considered and their merits weighed and actively debated. Many of Charleston's residents reasoned that the capitol should be rebuilt at the downtown site where the business of government had easy access to the business district of the city. Governor Morgan favored a capitol in the less congested eastern end of the city where the proposed complex could have ample grounds and space for future expansion. He stated that he sometimes walked from his residence in the east end to his downtown offices twice daily, thereby discounting the criticisms that the new location would be too far from downtown.
Before the final site was chosen, the first preference was a tract of land on the south side of the Kanawha River in the South Ruffner district, approximately where the Charleston Memorial Hospital is presently located. Houston Young became interested in the sixty unoccupied acres at the offset, and the site was also recommended and approved by architect Gilbert, as well as the commission's engineer, M. W. Venable. However, Fred M. Staunton, a Charleston banker and member of the commission, offered an honorable argument to dissuade the others from deciding on the South Ruffner property. Staunton stated that he owned most of the land in Kanawha City and felt that if the capitol was built adjacent to his holdings he would be accused of engineering it and would never live it down in his lifetime. Another influencing factor in the decision on the site was the fact that Kanawha County had given a million dollars to the state for the new capitol, and the funds, earmarked for the construction of a bridge to South Ruffner, could be applied to the construction costs of the complex if the location remained on the north side of the Kanawha River. Thus, the commission selected the present site, what they considered to be the second best spot, to eliminate potential allegations of graft, and not a few engineering obstacles. By the end of December of 1921, close to a year from the time of the fire, the chosen site was announced and the architect began in earnest his master plans for the complex.
After many consultations and exchanges of ideas, Gilbert's plans were officially adopted. Before ground could be broken, it was necessary to purchase sixty-five pieces of property between Duffy Street and California Avenue. Many of the lots contained valuable homes, among them the home of William G. Conley, who would be governor at the time of the capitol's dedication. Some of the residences were lifted from their foundations and moved (many were floated on barges across the river and relocated on land in South Ruffner), others were razed, and several remained intact to temporarily house state offices during the construction phases. On December 22, 1923, contracts were let for office building number one, the west wing of the capitol.
The general construction contract was awarded to the George A. Fuller Company; as a steam shovel was moved onto the site on January 7, 1924, the groundbreaking ceremony was held. Financing of the new capitol was quite involved, but before the levying of any specified taxes, money was obtained from the sale of the old capitol grounds, approximately one and one-half million dollars; about another half million from the sale of the Capitol Annex, and more than three hundred fifty thousand dollars from the grounds of the temporary capitol and the old governor's mansion. The state received over five hundred thousand dollars in insurance on the old building and its contents, and managed to sell several houses at the new capitol site for more than one hundred thousand dollars. These funds were adequate to begin the construction, and the 1921 Legislature enacted a gross sales tax to raise additional revenue to ensure its completion.
Paralleling the initial plans for the complex were plans for a new governor's mansion, and perhaps foretelling the ultimate choice of sites for the capitol, the mansion location was decided first. Situate only a block from the capitol grounds, the governor's mansion was built between the years 1924 and 1925 under the supervision of aspiring Charleston architect Walter F. Martens, in close consultation with Cass Gilbert. Governor Morgan was the first to occupy the new mansion, moving into it one week before he went out of office on March 4, 1925. He was the only governor to occupy both mansions.« previous | next »