CapitolThe House and Senate Chambers feature the original 1917 legislators’ desks.
On Monday nights in 1924, prisoners from the Missouri State Penitentiary danced on the State Capitol fifth floor roof with local Jefferson City girls.
It all came down to celebrity.
In 1923, an itinerant piano player with a drinking problem by the name of Harry Snodgrass got in big trouble in St. Louis. He and a buddy went out one night and each downed seventeen shots of moonshine until they ran out of money. Harry, in a stupor, decided the way to get cash for more booze was to go home, grab a couple pistols, and he and his friend would stage a holdup.
They walked into a confectionery shop, unaware that the proprietor also had a firearm. A shootout ensued, and Harry inadvertently shot and killed his accomplice. Segue to Harry behind bars at the Missouri State penitentiary, where he joined the prison band.
A few neighborhood girls would gather near the prison on Monday nights to walk behind the group of musician-prisoners escorted by guards to their weekly gig about a mile away. The band played live on one of the first radio stations in the nation, WOS, located on the fifth floor of the Capitol. Harry, after a while, was voted the most popular radio entertainer in America; his incarceration didn’t mar his notoriety one bit. The local girls were enchanted by Harry’s fame.
As the band played, some members didn’t chime in on every number, and they would “trip the light fantastic” with the ladies before guards escorted the men back behind prison walls.
Oh, if those Capitol walls could talk, the stories they could tell!
Noted Missouri historian Bob Priddy tells all in his book about the Capitol, One Great Feast: Art and History in Missouri’s Capitol, due out next year. And the walls he writes about just might remember that, in 1925 when the Capitol building was just eight years old (rebuilt after a fire destroyed the previous structure), a state representative stepped into the hallway outside his office and was accosted by a gunman. The legislator, a tall strong man from Greenfield, wrestled the gun away from the offender, who then fled. The pistol is still in the building, part of the ground floor museum stockpile.
The museum, by the way, is an official Missouri State Park, full of remarkable artifacts with new exhibits offered frequently.
That hallway altercation wasn’t the only one. Legislators through the years have been known to come to blows. In the late 1980s, two opposing lawmakers launched fisticuffs in the speaker’s office. Neither was badly injured.
All of these happenings took place behind the two enormous bronze doors atop the Capitol’s front steps—the largest ones cast since the days of ancient Rome. They were created in Brooklyn, New York, and loaded on a freight train to Missouri during World War I. But they went missing.
The U.S. War Department had authority to stop any train, unload the cargo, and reload with Army supplies, which is exactly what happened to the bronze doors headed for Jefferson City. When they didn’t arrive in a timely fashion, the search began. The Capitol Commission Board tried to find where the doors had been stashed. So did Missouri’s U.S. senators, congressmen, and the secretary of war. Their efforts turned up nothing. About a year later, however, completely unannounced, the massive doors arrived in the capital city aboard a train. No one ever learned where they’d spent their lengthy stint.
Stroll around back to where the Capitol faces the river, and across the street is a giant bronze grouping of men gathering to sign the Louisiana Purchase Treaty, which brought Missouri into the United States.
The statues, originally made of plaster, were first seen at the entry gate of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. After the fair closed, the statues were taken to the Saint Louis Art Museum for storage. They next went on display at the 1915 World’s Fair in San Francisco and were then offered to the Capitol Decoration Commission. The commission brought the big set to Jefferson City where it remained for many years in the rotunda under the grand staircase. After some time, the piece was shipped to New York City where it was the model for the bronze casting seen today.
And there is much more to take in when touring the Missouri Capitol. Folks can see the House and Senate Chambers and the legislators’ desks, which are the originals installed in 1917. Back then, to provide cooling to both chambers before the introduction of air conditioning, blocks of ice were trucked into the Capitol basement where fans would blow over them to send cool air up through grates in each chamber. Too much ice and too many blowing fans, however, caused the house and senate to become downright cold; it wasn’t unusual for representatives to don long john underwear under their suits to conduct business in comfort.
Another intriguing story is about the 1861 theft of the original Missouri State Seal, a bronze medallion about three inches in diameter. Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson made off with it in the heat of arguments over the state’s allegiance toward the North or South during the Civil War. Jackson, who favored the Confederacy, along with like-thinking legislators, copped the seal and headed toward Texas on horseback. Their trek led through Arkansas where the governor died. Lt. Governor Thomas C. Reynolds picked up the gauntlet and hightailed it to Marshall, Texas, carrying the seal in his saddlebags.
There, the lt. governor and several legislators formed a new Confederate state. Missouri, though, was left in chaos. There was no quorum of lawmakers here, nor in Texas, and the state could not legalize any document without imprinting the seal.
In 1869, the great seal of the state of Missouri was returned to Jefferson City where it now sits in the secretary of state’s Capitol office. The public can see it and make an imprint with it, but nobody can swipe it again—the original seal is immovable.
More than 130 years later, there was a different hullabaloo. In November 2007, the gigantic chandelier suspended from the rotunda dome fell. Workers had lowered the huge piece into a wooden cradle to clean and re-lamp it. As the workday ended, they raised the chandelier above the cradle, tethered it in place, and left.
At eight that evening, when only the housekeeping staff was in the building, chains holding the chandelier broke. It crashed into the wooden cradle below, and the whole shebang landed on the large state seal replica in the middle of the floor. Luckily, when work began on the giant light, the seal had been covered in thick plywood and canvas, so it received no damage from the fall. The chandelier, however, was hurt to the tune of half-a-million dollars. Once repaired, the workers all signed it, and up she went again high above the floor.
That chandelier is surrounded by breathtaking murals. Those in the rotunda were created by London artist Frank Brangwyn, considered the greatest muralist of the time. Brangwyn never set foot on U.S. soil, but was, instead, sent copies of blueprints of the dome to study. He built a mockup of the rotunda in his studio, then set to work painting on canvas from picture topics provided by the chairman of the Capitol Decoration Commission. In correspondence, Brangwyn kept referring to the building as The Missouri Parliament in St. Louis.
The murals were shipped to Jefferson City and unrolled on the Capitol lawn where white lead glue was affixed to the backs. More glue was put on the rotunda walls, and the murals were set in place. In the early 1980s, the picturesque scenes needed cleaning. They were also pulling away from the walls in some places, so workers used hypodermic needles to inject more glue for reattachment.
Speaking of the Capitol dome, the Whisper Gallery high in the dome is quite clever. While not on the official tour, occasionally members of the public are invited to step onto the circular balcony. The gallery boasts a perfect parabolic reflection. One person can stand at the far side facing the wall while another faces the wall on his or her opposite side. One can lightly whisper words that the other person can hear clearly.
Descending several hundred feet to the basement, few know that there are two large underground steam tunnels that connect the Capitol to the Missouri Department of Transportation building across the street. The power supply for the Capitol, for MoDot, and for the nearby Supreme Court building is supplied by a single power station not far down the railroad tracks. In essence, one could enter the Capitol and exit two blocks away, although nowadays the tunnels are somewhat thick with wires.
It’s been written that Missouri’s Capitol building is the most elegant of the fifty states. Its style is reminiscent of the nation’s Capitol in Washington. The cost to purchase the land, construct the Capitol, and furnish it in 1917 was more than four million dollars—$4,044,154.29 to be exact.
Part of the renown of the Capitol is the work of Missouri muralist Thomas Hart Benton. In 1936, he painted the mural that wraps around the entirety of the House lounge, and in doing so created a flap from several quarters, according to Bob.
House Speaker John G. Christy thought Benton had ruined the room because the mural is so vivid (“people jumping off the walls at you”). Christy tried to get it painted over, but lost that battle.
One of the biggest howls was about the naked baby in the political rally scene. Nakedness in public places, even in art, was regarded what more conservatively in the ’30s. Benton argued that “you can’t have history, you can’t have a state, if you don’t have babies.”
A number of people objected to the portrayal of Jesse James above the main lounge door. He’s shown in a red shirt robbing a train (and also in the background robbing a bank). Again, Benton went to bat for his mural. “You can’t be honest about a state’s history if you ignore the seamier aspects, and Jesse James was one of the most famous Missourians in the world.”
Another criticism Benton had to face was the fact that he’d portrayed some prominent Kansas City businessmen attending a business lunch that featured scantily clad dancing girls. Benton reminded his naysayers that he’d been to some of those luncheons and had, in fact, painted the girls with considerably more clothing than they actually wore.
Falling under the “boys will be boys” axiom, pranks and shenanigans have been known to occur now and then in the Missouri Legislature, particularly near the end of a session when lawmakers have had their noses to the grindstone for a long time.
One event concerned cell phones. No cell phone calls are allowed on the floor during sessions, but one workday a member’s cell rang, and he answered.
The Speaker heard, became upset, and ordered the Sergeant at Arms to bring the phone up to him on the dais. He raised the big, heavy gavel and hit the phone so hard that pieces of it flew several feet. The floor became deadly silent. Then the Speaker, the Sergeant at Arms, and the legislator who’d answered his cell began laughing. It was all a joke, a setup to surprise the room of lawmakers.
The Capitol is full of surprises, levity, and seriousness. Secrets hide around every turn, and discovering them is an adventure itself.
The Missouri State Capitol and Museum are open to the public from 8 ‑ to 5 ‑ every
day except Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Tours are given Mondays through Saturdays every hour on the hour for walk-in guests. Reservations are required for groups of ten or more. For more information, call 573-751-4127.