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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Dome in the Dumps

The imposing dome of the Wisconsin Capitol has been shown often in recent news footage. It has been an icon at least since 1940, when a photograph of it by Harold Hone was chosen for the dust jacket of the well-known W.P.A. guide to Wisconsin.

But the Capitol dome we love today was not the first. It had two predecessors, each of which suffered a peculiar fate.

The first dome was built in 1838 on the new territorial capitol. The building was a wide, low structure and its tin dome perched awkwardly on top. The public called it "Doty's Washbowl" after Territorial Governor James Doty and its resemblance to a household basin turned upside-down. The building was shoddily constructed, under constant repair, and had to be replaced just 25 years later.

The second Madison capitol was a much more imposing edifice with a dome inspired by the U.S. Capitol in Washington. This massive dome was finished in 1866 and served its purpose until the Capitol was destroyed by fire in 1904.

The citizens of Madison were so attached to the familiar dome that after the fire the it was salvaged from the ruins. In 1909, the Legislature enacted a bill directing the Capitol Building Commission to reassemble it on Main Hall at the University of Wisconsin.

The 1866 cast iron dome was hauled at great expense to the other end of State Street where engineers discovered that Main Hall was not strong enough to bear its weight. It sat on campus through the seasons, disembodied and exposed to the elements. After a decade of neglect, it was finally sold in 1915 to a local junk dealer for scrap.

By then, the Capitol we know today had risen from the ashes of the 1904 fire. The statue "Forward" was lifted and placed on top of the new dome on July 20, 1914.

:: Posted in on March 17, 2011
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