The Alabama State Capitol, listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the First Confederate Capitol, is the state capitol building for Alabama. It is located on Capitol Hill, originally Goat Hill, in Montgomery. It was declared a National Historic Landmark on December 19, 1960.
Alabama has had five political capitals during its history. The first was the territorial capital in St. Stephens in 1817, followed by the state convention in Huntsville in 1819, then the first “permanent” capital in Cahaba in 1820. It was then moved to Tuscaloosain 1826, until coming to rest in Montgomery in 1846. The current structure is the state’s fourth purpose-built capitol building, with the first at Cahaba, the second at Tuscaloosa, and the last two in Montgomery. The first capitol building in Montgomery, located where the current building stands, burned after only two years. The current building was completed in 1851, although additional wings were added over the course of the following 140 years.
The current capitol building temporarily served as the Confederate Capitol while Montgomery served as the first political capital of the Confederate States of America in 1861, before being moved to Richmond, Virginia. Meeting in the Senate Chamber, the Provisional Constitution of the Confederate States was drawn up by the Montgomery Convention on February 4, 1861. The convention also adopted the Permanent Constitution here on March 11, 1861. Over one hundred years later the third Selma to Montgomery march ended at the front marble staircase of the Capitol, with the marches and events surrounding them directly leading to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Architecturally, the building is Greek Revival in style with some Beaux-Arts influences. The central core of the building, as well as the east wing to the rear of the structure, is three-stories over a below-grade basement. The north and south wings are two-stories over a raised basement. The front facade that is seen today is approximately 350 feet (110 m) wide and 119 feet (36 m) tall from ground level to the top of the lantern on the dome.
First capitol building
The first capitol building to be built in Montgomery was designed by Stephen Decatur Button of Philadelphia. Andrew Dexter, one of Montgomery’s founders, kept a prime piece of property empty in anticipation of the capital eventually being moved to Montgomery from Tuscaloosa. This property, atop what was then known as Goat Hill due to its use as a pasture, was chosen as the site for the new capitol building. Construction began in 1846, with the new building presented to the state on December 6, 1847. Button credited much of his architectural inspiration to Minard Lafever’s Beauties of Modern Architecture.
Button’s building was stuccoed brick, with two full stories set over a rusticated raised basement. A two story monumental portico with six Composite columns, topped by a broad pediment, was centered on the middle five bays of the front elevation. A central dome, 40 feet (12 m) in diameter, sat directly on a supporting ring at the main roof level behind the portico. The dome was crowned with an elaborate lanternpatterned after the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates. This first capitol building burned on December 14, 1849, little more than two years after its completion. The ruins were cleared by March 1850, with a new building soon to follow.
Current capitol building
The new building utilized the brick foundations and general layout of Button’s previous structure, with modifications by Holt. The modifications included a full three-story building over a basement and a three-story front portico, this time without a pediment. Holt’s dome was a departure from the previous work also, this time the wood and cast iron dome was supported on a ring of Corinthian columns and topped with a simple twelve-sided glazed lantern. John P. Figh and James D. Randolph were the principal contractors. Figh had previously completed extensive brickwork on the William Nichols-designed campus for the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. Randolph was in charge of the carpentrywork, which was at least partially accomplished by subcontractors. Nimrod E. Benson and Judson Wyman were the building supervisors.
The new capitol building was first occupied by the Alabama Legislature on October 1, 1851. The clock over the portico was installed in February 1852. The clock, along with a bell, was purchased by the City of Montgomery and presented to the state in 1852. In proportion to the capitol building, the clock appears as a square white box with black dials and crowned with a gabled roof. The dials are 10 feet (3.0 m) in diameter with 4-foot (1.2 m) minute hands and a 3-foot (0.91 m) hour hands. It has been criticized as architecturally inappropriate on various occasions since its initial installation. With the secession of Alabama and six other Deep South states and subsequent formation of the Confederacy in February 1861, the building served as its first capitol until May 22, 1861. A commemorative brass marker in the shape of a six-pointed star is set into the marble floor of the front portico at the precise location where Jefferson Davis stood on February 18, 1861, to take his oath of office as the only President of the Confederate States of America.
In 1961 Governor John Patterson flew a seven-starred version of the Stars and Bars over the capitol for several days in celebration of the centennial of the Civil War. His successor, George Wallace, raised the Confederate Battle Flag over the dome on April 25, 1963, the date of his meeting with U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to discuss desegregation at the University of Alabama, as a symbol of defiance to the federal government. The flag remained there for almost 30 years. Several African American legislators and members of the state chapter of the NAACP were arrested in 1988 after attempting to remove the flag. The flag was removed during renovations to the dome in 1991, and its return was barred by a 1993 state court decision, which ruled that a state statute from 1895 allows only the national and state flags to fly over the capitol building.
The building served as home to the Alabama Legislature until 1985, when it moved to the Alabama State House. Officially, this move was temporary, since the Alabama Constitution requires that the Legislature meet in the capitol. In 1984, a constitutional amendment was passed that allowed the Legislature to move to another building if the capitol were to be renovated. The renovation started in 1985 and was completed in 1992 by the architecture group Holmes and Holmes. Upon the reopening of the building, the Governor of Alabama and numerous other state offices moved back into the building, but the legislature remained at the State House.
On May 7, 2009, the legislature reconvened in the capitol building for the first time since September 20, 1985, due to flooding in the State House. This required some adapting, as the capitol did not have desks in the House chamber and those in the Senate chamber were 1861 replicas. Neither chamber has a computerized voting system. The capitol building’s heating and air conditioning is supplied from the State House. Because the electricity had been turned off in the State House due to the flooding, there was no air conditioning in the capitol.
The original core of the building, as well as the subsequent additions, is essentially Greek Revival in style. The 1851 three-story core of the building features bays delineated by Doric pilasters and a monumental three-story hexastyle portico utilizing the Composite order. The original core of the building is 150 by 70 feet (46 m × 21 m), with an original central rear judiciary wing measuring 40 by 50 feet (12 m × 15 m). The first extension to the rear added another 70 by 50 feet (21 m × 15 m). Each side-wing is 100 by 92 feet (30 m × 28 m).
The additions started with an extension to the east wing on the building’s rear facade in 1885. Then a south wing with Beaux-Arts influences was added in 1906. An externally identical north wing was completed in 1912. The matching side-wings were designed by Montgomery architect Frank Lockwood, in consultation with Charles Follen McKim of McKim, Mead & White. The symmetrical north and south side-wings are each joined to the 1851 structure with a hyphen. Each hyphen features a recessed two-story Ionic portico on the west facade. Both of the adjoining side-wings feature two-story hexastyle Ionic entrance porticoes on their north and south elevations, respectively. The west and east facades of these wings also feature decorative two-story hexastyle pseudo-porticoes with engaged Ionic columns. A new east wing addition with a new three-story tetrastyle portico was built during the 1985–92 restoration. The new portico includes columns that match the Composite order originals of the main entrance portico on the 1851 west elevation.
Upon entering the ground floor of the capitol building, one enters the main stair-hall. It is the location of cantilevered stairways that spiral up to the third floor. The twin cantilevered spiral staircases are among the building’s finest original architectural features. They were designed and built by architect Horace King, a former slave who was freed in 1846. Due to his renown in Alabama and surrounding states as a bridge builder, the Alabama Legislature passed a special law that exempted him from the state’s manumission laws, which normally required that freed slaves leave the state within one year of gaining their freedom. During the post-war Reconstruction Era he served two terms in the Alabama House of Representatives, in the building that he had helped to design and build.
Immediately east of the stair-hall is the ground floor of the rotunda. The ground floor of the rotunda, not physically open to the upper rotunda floors, contains the memorial sculpture Lurleen Burns Wallace (1968) by F. R. Schoenfeld. Wallace was Alabama’s only female governor and died while in office in 1968. From there, hallways leading to offices branch off into the north and south wings. The next major room on the ground floor is the old Supreme Court Chamber, part of the original capitol plan. Located in the east (rear) wing, it is the only portion of the wing dating back to 1851. It is a large rectangular room, one story high, with a concave entry wall and two robust Ionic columns visually dividing the space near the center of the room. Later east wing expansions continue on eastward from this room.
The second floor is accessed via the main stairhall. From there the open rotunda is accessed to the east. The rotunda leads to the east wing offices, the old Senate Chamber to the north and the old House of Representatives Chamber to the south.
The interior of the capitol building is centered on the axial rotunda, which is topped by a large dome. The rotunda is open from the second floor and through the third floor to the top of the dome. The dome interior is decorated with eight painted murals by Roderick MacKenzie, a Scottish-born artist who relocated to Alabama. The murals illustrate MacKenzie’s artistic interpretation of the history of Alabama. They were executed on canvas from 1926 to 1930 at his Mobile studio and then shipped to Montgomery by railroad for installation in July 1930.
The murals depict the hostile meeting of Hernando de Soto and Tuskaloosa in 1540, the establishment of the colonial French capital of Mobile by Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville from 1702 to 1711, the surrender of William Weatherford to Andrew Jackson in 1814, pioneers settling the Alabama wilderness in 1816, the drafting of the Constitution of Alabama in 1818, wealth and leisure during the antebellum era from 1840 to 1860, the inauguration of Confederate President Jefferson Davis on the capitol steps in 1861, and, finally, prosperity following the development of resources from 1874 to 1930.
Both legislative chambers date to the original 1851 construction. Both of them are rectangular in shape and extend upward through the third floor, with a mezzanine gallery on that level. The galleries in both chambers are supported by Corinthian columns. Those in the old Senate Chamber are gilded, while those in the old House of Representatives Chamber are simply painted. The old Senate Chamber is the smaller of the two legislative chambers, with a mezzanine in a circular pattern stretching around all four sides of the room, broken only above lectern platform. The old House Chamber is larger, with a curvilinear mezzanine on three walls that merges into each side wall before reaching the lectern platform wall.
The Old House Chamber was the site of several events leading to the Civil War. The Alabama Succession Convention met here on January 11, 1861, and voted to withdraw from the Union. Then, the Confederate States of America was organized here via a provisional constitution on February 4, 1861, Jefferson Davis was elected as its first president on February 9, 1861, and finally the permanent Confederate constitution brought into effect on March 11, 1861.
The landscape plan for Capitol Hill surrounding the capitol building was originally designed by the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted in 1889. The grounds of Capitol Hill were surrounded by a cast iron fence from the 19th century into the first decades of the 20th. It was later removed and reused to enclose the Old Augusta Cemetery on Wares Ferry Road. The grounds still contain many trees and scrubs from the Olmsted design, in addition to numerous monuments. Other major features of the grounds include the marble steps leading to the front portico, the Confederate Memorial Monument and the Avenue of Flags. Statuary on the capitol grounds includes Albert Patterson (1961), Duty Called(1986) by Branko Medenica, James Marion Sims (1939) by Biancio Melarango, Jefferson Davis (1940) by Frederick Cleveland Hibbard, John Allan Wyeth (1920s) by Gutzon Borglum, and Joseph Lister Hill (1969) by Gualberto Rocchi.
The main steps
The principal access to the capitol building was originally via a long flight of steps leading to the front portico. These were much narrower than those in place today. They were replaced by new steps fabricated from Alabama marble in 1942. The modern steps are the same width as the portico and are edged with raised marble planters.
It was here that the third Selma to Montgomery march ended on March 25, 1965, with 25,000 protesters at the foot of the capitol steps on Dexter Avenue. Prominent protesters included Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Coretta Scott King, Ralph Bunche, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, John Lewis, James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, and Joan Baez. A delegation from the protestors attempted to see Governor George Wallace to give him a petition that asked for an end to racial discrimination in Alabama. The governor had sent word that he would see the delegation, but they were denied entry to the capitol grounds twice and told no one would be let through. State police surrounded the capitol and prevented the marcher’s delegation entry to the grounds. Martin Luther King, Jr. then gave an impassioned speech at the base of the steps:
We are not about to turn around. We are on the move now. Yes, we are on the move and no wave of racism can stop us.— Martin Luther King, Jr.
The delegation was later let through into the capitol, but were told that Wallace’s office was closed for the day. The delegation later left, without having been able to give their petition to anyone. It read:
We have come not only five days and fifty miles but we have come from three centuries of suffering and hardship. We have come to you, the Governor of Alabama, to declare that we must have our freedom now. We must have the right to vote; we must have equal protection of the law and an end to police brutality.— Selma to Montgomery marchers petition
These steps remain as they were in 1965, although repairs were made during the 1992 renovation of the building. The steps have continued to be the rallying point for civil demonstrations over the succeeding years. Memorial Selma to Montgomery marches have ended at the steps on several occasions. The most recent, in honor of what would have been King’s 83rd birthday, was held on January 15, 2012. On this occasion the marchers were greeted by Governor Robert J. Bentley.
The steps have seen protests by LGBT groups and immigration groups in recent years as well. The annual Vigil for Victims of Hate and Violence, sponsored by Equality Alabama, took place on the capitol steps on February 20, 2011, to heighten awareness of the lack of hate crime legislation to protect LGBT people in the state. Hundreds of protesters converged at the steps on December 17, 2011, to protest the passage of Alabama’s strict new immigration law, Alabama HB 56.
Confederate Memorial Monument
Design of the monument was done by Gorda C. Doud and executed by sculptor Alexander Doyle of New York City. The design features a stepped base surmounted by statuary representing the four branches of the military. Centered on top of this is a monumental bronze and limestone column, topped with a bronze figure by Doyle representing “Patriotism.” The cornerstone was laid by Jefferson Davis on April 29, 1886.
The base was built with Alabama limestone from Russellville, but problems occurred with the limestone for the column being found to be faulty. Although records are not complete, recent analysis has indicated that the column was eventually built using stone from Bedford, Indiana. Relations between Doyle and his monument clients had soured by the late 1880s. The remaining granite figures for the base, representing the military branches, were contracted from Barnicoat Monuments in Quincy, Massachusetts.
Critics have repeatedly called for the monument’s removal, stating that it promotes white supremacy. These removal attempts have met with considerable resistance from preservationists and others. The monument was vandalized in 2007, with black paint sprayed on the granite and limestone.
On the morning of June 24, 2015, state workers wordlessly removed the four flagpoles with flags intact containing the three Flags of the Confederate States of America, along with the Confederate Battle Flag on the orders of Governor Robert J. Bentley. This was done in the wake of the Charleston church shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015, after many companies and states, including South Carolina, responded to calls to remove the Battle Flag from being displayed in public venues or sold in stores. Bentley cited he found no laws or policies requiring the flags to stay up, and wanted to prevent any distractions to come from state legislative work. He was however met by a descendant of a Confederate veteran who walked in boycott of this event. Mike Williams was the citizen and at the time was the State Adjutant for the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Williams now is President of the Southern Historical Protection Group that serves as a lobby for legislation in the protection of historical monuments.
Avenue of Flags
The Avenue of Flags is another major feature of the Alabama State Capitol grounds. It is a grouping of the flags of the U.S. states, with a native stone from each state, engraved with its name, set at the base of each flagpole. The flagpoles are arranged in a semi-circle between the Ionic portico of the capitol building’s south wing and Washington Avenue. It was completed during the term of Governor Albert Brewer, being officially dedicated on April 6, 1968.
The areas that are open for tourists are the entry stairhall, the old Governors Office, the old State Supreme Court, the old Supreme Court Library, the rotunda, the old House of Representatives, and the old Senate Chamber. Its buildings and grounds are maintained by the Alabama Historical Commission.