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State Capitol Pediments

Posted by Megan Rohleder on Jan 5, 2021

By: Ethan Anderson, Government Records Archivist

If you took one of our behind-the scenes tours last year, the following items may look familiar. These four drawings, which we recently digitized, are proposed designs for the Kansas State Capitol’s  pediments, the triangle-shaped areas located above the building’s north and south entrances. While the original intent was to fill these areas with depictions of Kansas symbols and history, no plans were ever approved and the pediments remain unfinished today.

At first glance, the designs appear quite controversial, with nearly all of them featuring shackled slaves or frontier clashes with Native Americans. It is a common misconception that the inclusion of these subjects ultimately prevented their approval by the Board of State House Commissioners, the agency overseeing construction of the Capitol building. However, the board actually required artists to include such scenes, particularly on the north pediment. While the south pediment would focus on the great seal of Kansas, the board specified that the north pediment should depict “the strife that ensued to make the territory a free or slave state.”(1) Specifically, the design should contain a goddess of liberty in the center waving back pro-slavery forces “endeavoring to cross the border with their slaves” while free state forces stood ready “to repel the admission of slaves and slavery.” (2)

The first two drawings are the works of George Ropes, state architect (1885-1887, 1889-1891) and the superintending architect of the west wing of the statehouse. Ropes was highly respected for his abilities. The Junction City Weekly Union described him as “a master in his profession.” (3) Upon his reappointment in 1889, the Kansas City Gazette wrote with relief, “The State house commission, we notice, has returned to sense,” for without Ropes in charge, “they were undoubtedly making a botch of the building.” (4)

Among the renowned artists who submitted designs for the statehouse pediments were Lorado Taft of Chicago and Fyodor Kamensky of New York. Taft served as an instructor at the Art Institute of Chicago. Shortly after submitting his pediment designs, he gained a national reputation after overseeing the installation of sculptures adorning the buildings at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In 1899, the Hanover Democrat and Enterprise described him as “unquestionably the most prominent sculptor living in the West.” Fyodor Kamensky was also a highly capable artist, having attended the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Russia, before becoming a professor at the American Art School in New York City. A celebrated artist in Europe, Kamensky’s reasons for immigrating to the United States are unclear. The Fairview Enterprise claimed he was exiled by Tsar Alexander III in 1874 for including the word “Liberty” on a toy locomotive in one of his sculptures. (5)

The public was quite critical of some of the submitted proposals. The Topeka Daily Capital wrote that the drawings of Kamensky and another artist, “show incompetency of conception in their pediments. It is impossible to pronounce the work of either intelligible…the details are ludicrous in some respects.” Nevertheless, these negative reactions did not doom efforts to complete the pediment. Rather, after considering the submitted designs for three days, the Board of State House Commissioners simply adjourned without making a selection. If the board intended to award a contract the following year, the delay proved fatal. In the spring of 1891, the Kansas House of Representatives launched investigations into the “useless and wasteful, if not corrupt, expenditure of money” associated with the construction of the capitol. Though the Senate later found no evidence of wrongdoing, the project was $75,000-$100,000 overbudget. As a result, the Board of State House Commissioners was abolished. In the succeeding years, no effort was made to adorn the capitol pediments and they remain bare to this day. (6)

 

(1) “The State House,” Topeka Daily Capital, November 7, 1889, 4.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Junction City Weekly Union, February 14, 1885, 3.

(4) Kansas City Gazette, May 8, 1889, 2.  In addition to his work on the Kansas statehouse, Ropes designed the courthouses of Gove, Linn, Republic (which was destroyed by fire in 1938), and Trego counties, the First Presbyterian Church of Topeka (817 SW Harrison Street), the Green and Hessin Building in Manhattan (228-230 Poyntz), and the John E. Hessin House in Manhattan (519 N 11th Street).   Keith Vincent, Courthouse History, 2016, http://courthousehistory.com/gallery/states/kansas (accessed May 15, 2020); Riley County Historical Society and Museum, “Where the Adventure Began: Touring the Home Town of the Food Explorers,” November 2018, https://www.rileycountyks.gov/DocumentCenter/View/17220/Food-Explorer-Driving-Tour-2018-pdf (accessed May 15, 2020); Manhattan/Riley County Preservation Alliance Newsletter, “The John E. Hessin House,” April/May 2011 https://www.preservemanhattan.org/uploads/8/0/7/7/8077603/may2011_newsletter.pdf (accessed May 15, 2020).

(5) Newspapers of the time also listed Kamensky’s first name as “Feodor” or “Theodore.” “High in the World of Art,” Hanover (Kansas) Democrat and Enterprise, April 7, 1899, 5.  Taft also sculpted the bronze statue of General Ulysses S. Grant located at Fort Leavenworth. “Lorado Taft,” WTTW, https://interactive.wttw.com/art-design-chicago/lorado-taft (accessed May 13, 2020). “Personal and Impersonal,” Fairview (Kansas) Enterprise, July 5, 1890, 3.  After immigrating to the United States, Kamensky lived for a few years in Kansas, although it is unclear where.  “Kamensky the Sculptor,” Topeka Daily Capital, November 14, 1889, 5.

(6) “An Art Subject,” Topeka Daily Capital, April 6, 1890, 9; Topeka State Journal, March 7, 1890, 1; “Kansas Legislature,” Pittsburg Daily Headlight, March 10, 1891, 1; “There Is No Crookedness,” Capper’s Weekly (Topeka), June 25, 1891, 6; “The Board Is Dead,” Topeka Daily Press, May 5, 1891, 4.

 


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