Thursday, December 22, 2011

Ouch! Scathing!

So, apparently there was yet a third ceiling in the Assembly Chamber, one which predated the groin-vaulted stone ceiling which began to fail in its first season, and the fake-oak papier-mache ceiling with which it was replaced ten years later. This original ceiling is here criticized as a cheap, fraudulent conception in an ostensibly authentic structure, although the issues of acoustics were not addressed with the second ceiling, nor fire-proofing with the third, when the fire of 1911 sent a massive, 800 pound chandelier crashing to the floor when its supports burned away---or so we were told. Why such a heavy fitting would not have been attached to the iron-beam rafters herein described remains an architectural mystery.

Feb. 29, 1876, New York Times, HOW A CAPITOL IS BUILT.
The history of our State buildings for the Capitol at Albany is thus far one of the most instructive that has been offered of our system of carrying our public works of taste. Most intelligent men understand what a public building representing a wealthy and powerful community like the State of New-York ought to be. They can see that it should approach in its dignity, simplicity, and practical arrangement the great buildings for legislative or civil purposes which have become models for all succeeding ages. Above all, it should be genuine throughout, and, as in all good architecture, no ornamental feature should be introduced which was not a part and an expression of its practical character as a building. Then, whatever its external architecture, we had a right to expect that within its should be light, convenient, and suitable for its legislative and public purposes.

We have not space to relate the history in detail of the way in which the construction of the Capitol fell into the hands of its present architect and superintendent. It is no discredit to him to say that he does not in the least represent the best talent of the profession, and is not even an American. The Legislature have for some time been increasingly anxious as to the expense of the structure, and more and more doubtful as to its internal plan and external design. That they were reasonably so will appear from a few facts. Up to last year the building had only been finished to the main floor, and yet the cost had been $5,000,000. The architect had not even had the prudence or the ability to make an exact computation of the necessary expense of the remainder, but a careful professional estimate has shown that the building could not have been finished with the present designs for less than $14,000,000. The extravagance of this expense might have been paid for and forgotten. But the design itself was most defective.

In the elevation, as shown in the published designs, it presents a most singular and confused appearance. A Grecian pediment on the eastern front is relieved by semi-Gothic towers and a Renaissance roof and half tower. Though the foundation is as massive and genuine as anything known in modern architecture, yet here the roof ornaments are counterfeit, being of sheet-iron to represent stone, with a sort of cornice to represent stone-coping which turns out to be galvanized iron. The copper ornamentation around the half-towers is exceedingly tawdry and poor. The architect had a grand opportunity for a facade, so large is the plan, and yet the whole eastern and the southern sides are so broken as to lose all dignity, and yet not to attain picturesqueness. The balconies are uniformly put where they are not needed, and left out where they should be placed. Little of the ornamentation seems added where there is any architectural reason for it. The whole of this immense and almost tasteless structure is surmounted by a gigantic cupola, 313 feet high, of a singularly composite and unpleasing character. But bad as is the exterior, the interior arrangements are still worse. The ground plan, it will be remembered, is an immense cube, with a square hole in the middle. The corridors run the length of this cube, and it will hardly be believed by our readers, that there are two dark halls, each 340 feet in length, only lighted by a window at each end. Several rooms have no external means of lighting.

The legislative halls are not made conspicuous, and are difficult to find. The Assembly room is 141 1/2 feet long, 85 1/2 wide, and 42 high. The ceiling is a poor fire-proof cement ceiling, on iron rafters, and so hung as to make its acoustic properties very doubtful. The committee-rooms are double the size of those of the Capitol at Washington, very high, and dark, except near the windows. A number of the committee-rooms are two stories below the Senate and Assembly rooms. Throughout the interior the ornamentation is tawdry and poor, being of cheap plaster instead of wood or stone. The immense windows, with seventy-pound weights, are set in wooden (instead of iron) jambs, and are almost sure to warp under the sun, and give great annoyance. Nowhere within is there a dignified access to that which constitutes the object of the building--the legislative halls.

We have not space to criticise further the defects of this expensive structure, which are manifold. The Legislature, it will be remembered, finally referred the whole matter of the construction of this building to a committee, of which Mr. Dorsheimer was Chairman. These gentlemen initiated a reform in such proceedings, by referring the whole question to experts. They selected for this purpose Mr. F. L. Olmsted, well known for his taste, integrity, and knowledge of the expense of public works, Mr. Leopold Eidlitz, the builder of some of the most beautiful structures in this City, and Mr. Richardson, an architect in Boston of high repute. These gentlemen, for almost a nominal sum, have prepared a new plan, new specifications, and, while of course preserving the general character of the building, have corrected some of the defects, and now in their report to the committee of the Legislature, offer a new Capitol two millions of dollars cheaper than the former one, and a building of some taste and dignity. For the sake of the whole public, it is to be hoped that their plan will be adopted.

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