Shortly after the end of the 1875 Indiana legislative session, a state senator, Andrew J. Boone, died at his home in Lebanon, Indiana. The death of this one lawmaker was of more than usual concern to his constituents and fellow legislators because some argued that Boone’s fatal illness was due to the structure where state’s laws were being made—the Indiana State Capitol.
The original Indiana Statehouse, constructed in 1830 at a cost of approximately $60,000, had deteriorated enough over the years that one representative, Richard R. Stephenson of Hamilton County, likened the building to the “Black Hole of Calcutta.”
A New State House Committee, appointed by the general assembly in 1873, had warned lawmakers that the building was “totally inadequate to the public service.” Something had to be done before more legislators were felled by the structure’s leaky roof, poor ventilation, and crumbling walls.
On March 14, 1877, the Indiana General Assembly finally acted to rectify the situation, approving an act authorizing the construction of a new statehouse at a cost not to exceed $2 million. Despite losing the original architect for the project, Edwin May, who died only a few years after work had started, construction on the new state capitol, an example of the Renaissance Revival style, was completed on October 2, 1888, at a total expense of $1,980,969, well within the state’s original budget. The statehouse, with architecture reminiscent of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., remains the seat of Indiana’s government, serving as home to the House of Representatives, Senate, Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, and a host of state agencies and offices. Thanks to an approximately $11 million restoration projected completed in time for the building’s 1998 centennial, today’s Hoosiers can walk through its skylighted, marble-topped corridors and marvel at the structure’s classic features.
Of course, as with many government-sponsored projects, erecting such a stately edifice took plenty of time and generated a great deal of paperwork. Overseeing the building of the new statehouse in 1877 was a five-member Board of State House Commissioners, which consisted of the governor and two members of each political party. The commission engaged the services of an architect, civil engineer, and builder to examine four designs for the new capitol that had been received by the state prior to March 1877. They were to judge if the designs could be completed according to plans and specifications within the $2 million limit, whether dangers from fire were sufficiently guarded against, if ample provisions were made for safely heating the building, and if the materials of the superstructure were “in kind and quality such as to insure stability and permanence.”
All the plans were rejected for not meeting the requirements imposed by the commissioners. As well as ridding itself of old plans, the board had to clean its own house, firing its secretary, W. C. Tarkington, in January 1878 because he attempted to influence the selection of a design for which he would receive money.
Hoping to spark some ideas, the commissioners visited Springfield, Peoria, and Chicago, Illinois; Hartford, Connecticut; Lansing, Michigan; Washington, D.C.; and Cincinnati, Ohio, to examine their public buildings. Thus armed, the commissioners held an open competition for the statehouse design and received twenty-four plans. On April 11, 1878, the board accepted the design submitted by May, a Boston native who had come to Indiana in 1840 and was known for his work on the Northern Indiana Prison at Michigan City and county courthouses in Allen, Decatur, Hamilton, and Knox Counties. May called his plans for the capitol “Lucidus Ordo,” Latin for “a clear arrangement.” For his work, May was to receive 2 percent of the building’s cost as his fee.
Although the project was delayed for a bit due to lawsuits brought by architects whose designs failed to win the competition, construction bids were finally opened by the commissioners on August 15, 1878. The contract was awarded to Kanmacher and Denig of Chicago, and work began on the new building that fall. The cornerstone, a ten-ton block of Indiana limestone inscribed with “A.D. 1880,” was laid in ceremonies on September 28, 1880. Along with a keynote address by Governor Thomas Hendricks, poet Sarah Bolton read a piece she had written for the occasion. The public took such a keen interest in the project that there were several accidents at the site, as well as incidents of people damaging materials and interfering with work. To halt the problems, the board ordered the statehouse grounds close to the public.
A bigger problem had occurred in February 1880 when May, who was in Jacksonville, Florida, recuperating from an illness, died. To keep the project running smoothly, the commissioners appointed Adolph Scherrer, who had been working by May’s side for the past seven years, as supervising architect for the new statehouse. The commissioners also had to find a new contractor when, in 1883, Kanmacher and Denig had trouble with its Chicago financier. New bids were solicited for the building, and the commissioners awarded the contract to Elias F. Gobel and Columbus Cummings of Chicago.
The Indiana General Assembly held its first session in the new statehouse on January 6, 1887, but work continued at the site until September 1888. The Board of State House Commissioners concluded its work and closed its accounts on October 2, 1888.
Through the years, the statehouse underwent extensive renovations to bring it up to modern conditions. During that time, much of the building’s original character was lost. In 1986 the legislature approved funding to return the building to its 1888 appearance in time for its centennial. The restoration, under the direction of Indianapolis’s Cooler Group, Inc., included stripping, painting, and decorating with the original 1886 designs approximately four acres of plaster walls and ceilings; using approximately 1,500 gallons of paint to re-create the original plans and refinish the area above the rotunda; cleaning approximately 124,500 square feet of interior marble and limestone; and removing 2,920 two-feet-square pieces of marble floor so that new electrical wiring could be installed.