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Harrisburg: The City Beautiful


Capital to Stay in Harrisburg

Article by Mary Klaus following the debate to move the capital to Philadelpia.

After the capitol building burned down, people began to requestion whether Harrisburg was the right place for Pennsylvania's capital. The leaders in favor of moving the capital back to Philadelphia were Governor Daniel H. Hastings and Senator C. Wesley Thomas. Some dismissed the suggestion immediately and began wondering how much it would cost to rebuild and what the new one would look like, however Hastings was the first to show concern for raising the money for this enormous venture and initially would not think of building a new one unless the old one could be rebuilt. After seeing the dedication of Harrisburg's citizens in their determination to set up a temporary location for the assembly to meet, he abandoned the idea, declining the mayor of Philadelphia's offer to move it their for the time being, and voting in favor of keeping the capital in its current location. Senator C. Wesley Thomas then stepped in and introduced a bill that would move the captial to Philadelphia starting January 1, 1899. He insisted that Harrisburg would not be an adequate place for the capital until it had a paid fire department. 

Photograph of Joseph M. Huston

Joseph M. Huston

The man who saved Harrisburg was Representative George Kunkel of Dauphin County. Amid the cheers of firefighters and Harrisburg residents, he defended the city and its fire department. First, he reminded Senator Thomas that state capitals are purposely kept away from the most crowded cities in a state, and, second, he protected the integrity of the firefighters by pointing out that the same men would make up the department whether or not they were paid so these men were in fact the best in the city. Harrisburg won the capital in a 103-75 House vote on May 8, 1901 (Beers, 10). The Pittsburgh Times later also commented that being at the intersection of so many railways put Harrisburg in a crucial part of the state, even if it was the metropolis that Philadelphia was. The next step was choosing a team to create the new building. The first man chosen was Joseph M. Huston (pictured left), the architect with the winning design. 

George G. Barnard Sculpting

George G. Barnard sculpting

Harrisburg needed to prove now that the state had made the right decision in letting them continue their role as the state's capital. What better way to do that than to show how beautiful the city could become even without the type of funds that Philadelphia had. The topping on the cake that was the City Beautiful Movement, would be a beautiful new capitol building. Huston's design was just what they were looking for. A Philadephia newspaper said that the building would be "one of the most artistic monuments of the state". Only referring to the the architecture, the reporter did not even know yet about the three main artists hired to decorate the structure. Violet Oakley (painter), Edwin Austin Abbey (painter), and George G. Barnard (scultor) would add to majesty of the building. Pictured left, Barnard is sculpting one of the figures that would adorn the outside of the the capitol, "The Hewer". 

Joseph M. Huston's Bronze Heads Political Cartoon

Political Cartoon poking fun at the bronze heads Joseph M. Huston put on the doors to the Capitol Building.

Like almost anything done in the public eye, the new capitol building had its share of criticisms. The one with the most press coverage was in regards to the series of paintings that were done by Miss Violet Oakley. The subject of these paintings was the founding of the colony of Pennsylvania, highlighting the fact that it was founded on the basis of religious freedom. Many Catholics were offended by their portrayal in these paintings saying that it was historically inaccurate. Oakley who had done extensive research on the subject was not asked to remove or to change her work. Also, the giant bronze doors that Huston had designed were decorated with bas relief heads of men who were intended to represent the many types of men who made up the state of Pennsylvania. However, somehow a rumor was started that the men were supposed to represent the members of the Capitol Building Commission. This became the source of many jokes mocking the doors and the commissioners, like the political cartoon on the left. Lastly, Barnard's nude sculptures did not receive a warm reception when they were shipped from his studio in France to the capital, and were therefore promptly covered up in 1911. 

Harrisburg Capitol Building

The exterior of the new Capitol Building.

Despite these few criticisms, it is hard to deny that Huston's capitol building is anything but impressive. Finished in 1906 and on schedule, as of 1908 it was the only state capitol building built within its estimates according to the Times in Buffalo, New York. Unfortunately, it was not all good news that came out of the finished product. A total of five workers died while the building was under construction, an impressive number when compared to the fact the the fiery destruction of the old building claimed no victims. 

Capitol Building: Rotunda

The rotunda of the new Capitol Building.

Residents of Harrisburg had a capitol to be proud of when they welcomed President Theodore Roosevelt to their city for the dedication of the new building on February 5, 1906. Writing from a woman's perspective, Mary D. Fitzgerald, after seeing the building for the first time, described it as "perfectly wonderful, [...] marvellously beautiful, [... and] a superb success", and was especially impressed with the rotunda (pictured left). It was a perfect embodiment for the City Beautiful Movement, capturing its objective in making Harrisburg a city in which its residents were proud to live in.