Monday, December 29, 2008

Great American Architecture Vol. 5

What seems like years ago I stated that my next post would be getting back to one of the fundamentals of traditional neighborhood design, that of quality architecture. The stretch of time between Halloween and Christmas was an all-out sprint to declutter, customize, and finish my new city townhouse for the holiday season as I hosted my family. In the new year you can expect me to get back to the frequency of posts of of the previous winter/spring, especially once the RRCDC lecture series cranks up again in earnest.

The subject of my architecture post is the West Virginia capitol building on the banks of the Kanawha River in Charleston. Designed by Beaux Arts pioneer Cass Gilbert (Woolworth Building, New York Life Tower, United States Supreme Court Building), the capital is largely constructed of Indiana Limestone, Vermont Marble, and Tennessee Marble.

The impetus for the construction of what would become one of few state capitols to have a gold leaf dome (which was painstakingly restored over the last two years, including an enclosed temperature controlled scaffolding system) were fires that destroyed the original Charleston installation in 1921 and its replacement in 1927. Built for just under $9.5 million, the building provides 535,000 square feet of floorspace on a footprint covering 16 acres.

Some notes about the interior of the dome from
  • Chandelier is Czechoslovakian-imported crystal weighing two tons
  • 15,000 candle power
  • 179 feet, 9 inches from the floor
  • 54 foot-long gold chain lowered by hand winch at a set speed, requiring 3 1/2 hours to lower and 4 1/2 hours to return to stationary position. The chandelier is lowered for cleaning every four years upon the inauguration of a new governor or re-election of an incumbent.

What really drew me to this work, in addition to its fine craftsmanship, is the orientation of the larger capitol plaza and its relationship to the rest of the city. Rule #6 of traditional neighborhood design is that special sites be reserved for special buildings in order to achieve a physical structure that supports social structure. In addition to the functional aspects, the plaza contains several fountains, statues, and the Governor's Mansion. It is largely closed to vehicular traffic.

For more looks at architecural detail and material quality from the ceilings to the light fixtures, visit the photo gallery at the West Virginia Legislature's official site.

The plan for the rest of the holiday break is to scan the news for all things urbanism. Either later today or tomorrow I'll be back with news of the newest light rail system to open in the United States in PHOENIX of all places.

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