The stately capitol of R.I.

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View between dome (right) and tourelle from roof of Rhode Island State House. (Photo by author)

In whole or in part, the design of the Rhode Island State House (1901) can be read at many levels, directly or intuitively. The volutes of the Ionic capitals on the four cupolas, or tourelles, surrounding the dome suggest the scrolls on which early Greek democratic principles where written. The dentils, or teeth, underlining the cornices of both the dome and one of its four tourelles may to some suggest the grinding of citizens’ teeth at the behavior of the inmates of the capitol. On the other hand, the dentils and the volutes may truly be no more than timeless classical forms designed to evoke no deeper meaning at all. (Remember to duck at incoming from the academic classicists!)

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Dome of the R.I. State House. (Etsy)

The four tourelles may be said to be the dome’s Praetorian guard. But maybe that’s not quite correct. Too authoritarian for the Ocean State. Maybe they just represent Rhode Island citizens looking reverently upward at the dear dome and the Independent Man at its summit.

Charles Follen McKim of McKim, Mead & White, the nation’s leading architectural firm of the Gilded Age, designed the Rhode Island capitol. He did not leave a manual for the use of Rhode Islanders hoping to penetrate more deeply into meaning of the building (at least not so far as I know). Books that assign meaning to classical forms trace their significance to Greek and Roman mythology, but whether they manage to divine true meaning remains difficult to discern.

The Ionic column, for example, is said to reply to the masculine, soldierly Doric column, with the volutes or scrolls on the Ionic capital representing the curls of a Greek lady’s hair style. But others attribute the volute to the horns of a ram – a somewhat less womanly interpretation, to say the least. Maybe the four volutes atop each column capital foreshadow future four-wheeled vehicles. The dome itself boasts a colonnade of columns known as “composite” – a mixture of the Corinthian and the Ionic. A mixture of the male and the female? Well, maybe. But that’s a matter for another day.

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The Independent Man. (RI.gov)

What is the Independent Man, once called Hope (a decidedly feminine name for a decidedly masculine figure), who stands on top of the dome, doing with that spear? Not much, it appears. Nevertheless, among the politicians who toil in the chambers below, do sticklers to the party line blush when they look up at him? Do sticklers to the party lines of opposition and reformist factions blush with equal radiance? For they too are members of the state’s many competing herds of independent minds. Is our dear Independent Man proud of that rumble over which he presides? Or is his spear a weapon to keep them in line? Or to punish them?

Symbols of justice often take the form of a blindfolded Lady Justice holding up the scales to weigh her product in the balance. Does her blindfold signify her inattention to facts or to the truth? Of course not. It means that she is impartial, meting out justice evenhandedly, regardless of the wealth and status of petitioners for justice in the legal system. In most systems this impartiality is debatable, but it is ever and always the ideal striven for over time.

Whatever their symbolic meaning, the ornamental forms of the classical canon result in beauty, which might be deemed necessary to the evocation of stature, dignity, respect, esteem, pride, grandeur, regality, nobility, majesty, lordliness, magnificence, honesty, gravity, godliness, sobriety, righteousness, or whatever citizens were supposed to look up to as the symbolic meaning of their societies’ most imposing architecture at this or that stage in the long history of the formal development of classicism at its highest levels.

These forms have been used so long to evoke valuable qualities that they have come to be seen as intrinsically beautiful in almost every land where they prevail (or once prevailed). Cynical expressions of degraded meaning (as suggested here and there above) would scarcely fool observers into doubting their instinctive respect for the more laudable symbolism of these forms. Is there a connection between feelings of respect and feelings of beauty? In the broadest sense the answer is certainly yes. Surely, reader, you must agree!

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Rhode Island State House, designed by Charles Follen McKim. (mikedooleyphotography.com)

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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4 Responses to The stately capitol of R.I.

  1. Carroll Westfall says:

    Bravo!

    Like

  2. Steven Semes says:

    David, We’ll have to let our McKim Mead & White experts chime in here, but I’d always heard that the RI Capitol was the only project for which William Rutherford Mead took design credit. It seems a bit overwrought for McKim’s more austere taste, but of course I could be wrong. What do our scholars say?

    Like

    • Steve, I’ve never heard of Mead as designer of the R.I. State House. Our Rhode Island Preservation & Heritage Commission attributes it to the firm without further ado. The late William Jordy attributes it to McKim, noting in his “Buildings of Rhode Island” that “as principle designer for the State House” he “scorned the gaudy and idiosyncratic ornamentation of capitols” of the Victorian period. And indeed I’ve always felt (with Jordy) that the decor on the facades of the main building was a bit on the severe side. Local lore has it that McKim used the unfair advantage of his friendship of many leading Rhode Islanders (including some clients in Newport) to secure the commission in 1892. Jordy refers to the “elaborate” design competition as “probably ‘arranged.'” I’m no scholar, of course, but I’ve been around here long enough to be aware of any attribution to Mead if there were one. I’d love to see a controversy arise on this issue!

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