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Piranesi and the Missouri State Capitol

I have a very clear memory as a college student first discovering the work of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778). I was particularly taken aback by the steam-punkish Carceri d’invenzione (Imaginary Prisions) convoluted volumes and complicated perspectives. I was reminded of those dreamlike spaces recently while visiting the Missouri State Capitol Building.

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The Capitol is alike to Piranesi’s dark vision in that it is a huge building (covering nearly three acres) that was built in a Roman Revival Style with giant domes, vaults and galleries that intersect in spatially arresting ways. Touring the building, you will turn a corner and suddenly have a view through a series of juxtaposed architectural forms that can make you feel as if you are standing in a Piranesi print.

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The building is also a little under-lit, creating a bonus mystique that draws the visitor forward into the next view. 

What is not like Piranesi is the wonderful decoration of the building interior surfaces. This explosion of art is the result of the previous Capitol building being struck by lightning in 1911 and fully gutted by the ensuing fire. Less than six months later, Missourians approved the issuance of $3.5 million in state bonds for the construction of a new building. The State miscalculated the revenue projections of the special tax earmarked for the project, and ended up with close to $1 million in excess funds. It was decided that the extra money would be used to decorate the building and a group of well-known (in the day) artists were hired, including Frank Brangwyn, N.C. Wyeth, James Earle Fraser and Alexander Stirling Calder.

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A couple more views…

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The decoration also includes some delightful surprises seldom seen in design and construction today.

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To me, the most striking decoration is the muraled walls of the House of Representatives Lounge. Painted by Missouri native Thomas Hart Benton beginning in 1935, they depict bold and vivid scenes of everyday Missouri life. Entitled “Social History of Missouri” the paintings immediately sparked controversy and have survived a few attempts to whitewash them. Now they are a source of pride and a must-see stop on every visitor’s Capitol tour. I like to think that Piranesi would appreciate the complex and overlapping perspective views peopled with hard-working Missourians toiling to make a better world.

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If you are a Missourian, you have probably visited the Capitol building in Jefferson City as part of a grade-school civics class tour to see State government in action. I suggest that you visit again, this time to see the building, the beautiful decorations and the wonderfully complex flow of interior space. I believe Piranesi would rate it five stars.

Posted by John Wilhelm, Project Manager

RISE Fundraiser at Urban Chestnut Brewing Company

Trivers is excited to bring together two great clients -- RISE and Urban Chestnut Brewing Company -- for a happy hour - fundraising event on November 5th. Click here to register.

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Boldt Castle - When Things are Better Left Untouched?

Back in 1985, before a few Trivers employees were born and I still thought pegged acid-washed jeans were a good idea, a future college professor of mine wrote an article called “The Ruin of Ruins: Preservation and the Loss of Value” in Oz: Vol. 7 – the journal of the Kansas State College of Architecture and Design.

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Clearly not a good idea

Ray Streeter, the author, applies the arguments of Alois Riegel (from his essay “The Modern Cult of Monuments: Its Character and Origin”) to the restoration of Nichols Hall on the K-State Campus. The old Nichols Gymnasium, reminiscent of the US Army Corps of Engineers logo, burned in 1968, leaving only a scorched and decaying limestone shell. After a protest against a threatened demolition in 1979, the building received a 6-year renovation, culminating in new computer facilities, a 288-seat experimental theater, library storage, and a skylit atrium/lobby.

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Nichols Hall Fire

Streeter argued that the renovation of Nichols failed to preserve its character as a ruin and failed to acknowledge its unique history and role in the campus. The restoration treated Nichols as a void on campus to be filled and occupied. Using the categories developed by Riegel, the preservation dismisses the three values modern man applies to monuments: Age Value, Historical Value, and Commemorative Value.

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Nichols Hall Today

That article came to mind this summer while on my family vacation. After visiting family in Vermont and New York, we went through the Thousand Islands region of the Saint Lawrence River on our way home. Our main stop was Boldt Castle, which I had toured a few years before Professor Streeter wrote his article. At that time Boldt Castle was nothing but a shell.

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Boldt Castle


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The Family in Boldt Castle

In 1900, George Boldt, the General Manager of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, started construction of a huge masonry structure on Hart Island - what was to be one of the largest private homes in America. In addition to the six story castle, the four story Alster Tower, Power Plant structure, Gazebo and Entry Arch all exhibit turn-of-the-century masonry skill and craftsmanship. The entire island was to be a present from George Boldt to his wife as a symbol of his love and devotion.

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Boldt Castle Power Plant

With significant portions of the main castle nearing completion – including furniture – all construction stopped abruptly in 1904 after the death of Louise Kehrer Boldt, George’s wife. He never returned to the island and abandoned the structures as a monument to his grief.

For the next 73 years, the castle and other structures were left to the elements and vandals, before the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority acquired the property in 1977. When I visited in the early 1980s, the structure was still a ruin. Fundraising was underway and much of the building was under roof, but windows were still open and every conceivable surface was covered with graffiti. The island was a beautiful shambling mess.

In 2015, Boldt Castle is still a long way from a finished restoration. All windows are installed, the first floor has restored or recreated interior finishes, and period furniture has been collected for a number of rooms. The majority of the upper floors; however, still have concrete or bare wood subfloor and plaster walls with sections of exposed wood lath. The upper floors are still covered with graffiti – scratched into the plaster for the old and Sharpie markers for the recent. Despite signs of warning that defacing the building is a crime, I found graffiti dating from the current year. I even found markings in a stairwell indicating the same couple had returned to the building over the last several years. There is a certain irony that this monument to a broken heart has become a canvas for expressions of love.

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Boldt Castle Graffiti

Beyond the concern that the restoration is erasing these marks of age - this recognition that two thirds of the life of these structures was in a state of abandonment - the results of the efforts at times amount to little more than a caricature of Boldt Castle. Contemporary materials and construction techniques cannot recreate the historic, nor should they try. While certain spaces have been painstakingly recreated, like the main interior stair (based off original construction documents and photos), other spaces like the main dining room fail to meet the measure of the original. Drywall window returns and faux-wood beams do not measure to the original plaster and wood detailing. I see a qualitative difference between the results at the entry hall and stair and the dining room, with one a faithful reproduction of the original and the other not significantly different than a modern McMansion.

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Boldt Castle Entry Stair Before and After

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Original Dining Room

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Renovated Dining Room

I am left to wonder if the reality of the present with the imagination of the past surpasses false assumptions of the past shown in the present. For instance, would the Dining Room be better left untouched, and does a poor result in one area diminish the whole? As it stood in 1983, Boldt Castle met Riegel’s three values – Age, Historical, and Commemorative. Now, various portions of the work enhance while some detract from these values, and on a structure functioning as a museum and monument. There is no dining in that Dining Room. As an architect who has spent a considerable portion of my career in Preservation and Adaptive Reuse, I must determine where to draw that line, and it is seldom clear. At what point does restoration become the ruin of ruins?

Posted by James Roseberry, AIA, CDT, LEED AP, Project Architect