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The Lion of Lansing | The History of Michigan’s Capitol Building

Michigan has many scenic and well-known landmarks, but the Capitol in Lansing may be the most famous. This Victorian-era domed building is a favorite of locals, out-of-town visitors, youngsters on field trips, and many others who come to explore the capital’s impressive architecture and award-winning art.

Though the Michigan Capitol building, known as the “Lion of Lansing,” has been a fixture for more than a century, it’s only one chapter in the storied history of State Capitols. It’s a history involving two cities, three Capitols, and a city that almost became Michigan’s capital instead.

Michigan’s State Capitol stands as a monument to American history. It was an instant success when it was built and became a national symbol of American democracy.

The Lion Of Lansing: A Brief History Of Michigan’s Capital Building - The Awesome Mitten
Photo courtesy of the Archives of Michigan

A History of Michigan’s Capital Sites

While Lansing is one of the Great Lakes State’s biggest cities, it was once a vast wilderness that seemed an unlikely contender to be the center of state government.

Michigan became a state in 1837, and a more well-known Michigan city served as the Michigan Territory’s first capital. A small city in Southcentral Michigan also made a bid to be the state capital before Lansing Township became the capital in 1847.

Detroit Becomes Michigan’s First Capital

Detroit holds the honor of being Michigan’s first capital. Long before it was known as the Motor City or Motown, it served as the capital of the Michigan Territory. The first governmental building, known then as the Michigan Territorial Courthouse, opened on May 5, 1828.

When Michigan was admitted to the Union in 1837, the Greek Revival-inspired building was converted into the State Capitol. The building was designed by Obed Wait and measured 60 feet by 90 feet with a center tower standing 140 feet.

When Michigan became a state, the state constitution included a provision that read, in part:

“The seat of government for this state shall be at Detroit, or at such other place or places as may be prescribed by law until the year (1847), when it shall be permanently located by the legislature.”

Michigan Constitution

When the state government moved to Lansing, the Detroit Capitol was turned into Capitol Union High School in 1863 — the first high school in the city. An expanding population and an aging layout necessitated a makeover of the building. It was housed inside a stony skin, a two-story addition was put on top, and the rear of the building was extended.

In 1893, a fire claimed the building, burning the site of the school and the former Capitol to the ground. All that remained was the stone structure, which acted like a wood-burning stove around the wooden structure.

The Lion Of Lansing: A Brief History Of Michigan’s Capital Building - The Awesome Mitten
Photo courtesy of the Archives of Michigan

Marshall Makes a Capital Bid

When the Michigan Legislature decided to move operations, Marshall — not Lansing — was thought to be the frontrunner.

A lengthy debate in the Legislature ensued over the best place to move the state capital, and Marshall was among a group that included Jackson, Grand Rapids, and (jokingly) Copper Harbor.

Named after Chief Justice John Marshall, the city was so sure of its pending capital selection that a governor’s mansion was built.

FUN FACT: Marshall is one of several places in Michigan named after government officials in President Andrew Jackson’s administration. Also, ten so-called Cabinet Counties in Michigan are named after members of Jackson’s cabinet as Michigan made a bid for statehood.

Michigan’s Government Moves to Lansing

Joseph Kilbourne eventually proposed moving the state government to Lansing Township, a virtually unknown spot to most legislators. The decision to move Michigan’s capital was made for four main reasons:

  • The need to boost the economy of Michigan’s interior
  • A desire to make the capital more accessible to residents
  • To promote settlement in Michigan’s inner regions
  • To increase the defensibility of the capital by moving it away from the Canadian border

At the time, the area was little more than a hole in the woods, but the Legislature approved the location, which was renamed the Town of Michigan. It was renamed Lansing in 1848.

Michigan’s second official Capitol was built in 1847 — a simple two-story structure built by Israel Gillett and painted white with green wooden shutters. The building stood on the block bordered by Capitol and Washington Avenues and Allegan and Washtenaw Streets in present-day Lansing.

TIP: A historical marker dedicated to Michigan’s first Capitol is on Allegan Street near the intersection of Washington Avenue.

The second Capitol was always intended to be a temporary home because the town’s designers wanted a permanent Capitol built on the town’s highest site. The property was sold when the third Capitol was built. Unfortunately, the second Capitol was destroyed by a fire in 1882.

The Lion Of Lansing: A Brief History Of Michigan’s Capital Building - The Awesome Mitten
Photo courtesy of Stefani Chudnow

A Third Michigan Capitol Building Comes to Fruition

After nearly two dozen bids were accepted to build a new Capitol for Michigan, Elijah E. Myers was chosen as the architect to build a stately, fireproof building to meet the state’s needs. Myers was one of the leading architects of his time having built the Colorado’s and Texas’ Capitols.

Michigan’s Capitol was one of the first to take inspiration from the US Capitol, which was completed in 1800. It was enlarged in 1850 to extend the wings for the House and Senate chambers, and its famous dome was completed in 1866.

The Construction

Construction of Michigan’s new Capitol began in 1872, with some materials made right in Lansing and others shipped in from different states. The final construction cost was more than $1.4 million, but officials wanted to be sure the structure was built with the best materials.

A 5-ton granite cornerstone was lowered and sealed in place in October 1873, and the new 139-room Capitol was completed in 1878. It was dedicated on Jan. 1, 1879, following the inauguration of Gov. Charles Croswell.

The Lion Of Lansing: A Brief History Of Michigan’s Capital Building - The Awesome Mitten
Photo courtesy of Stefani Chudnow

Restorations & Repairs

The building underwent restorations from 1989 to 1992. Lighting fixtures were replicated from archived photographs, the Capitol dome received a fresh paint job, and the entrance was repaired with the same Ohio quarry material that was originally used.

Distinct Features

Though it took four decades for Michigan’s government to have a permanent home, the Great Lakes State’s third Capitol became a model for future State Capitols and has many distinct features.

Neoclassical Structure

The Capitol’s style incorporates elements of Roman and Greek architecture known as Neoclassical and Renaissance Revival. Inside and outside, visitors see columns of classic Doric, Corinthian, and Ionic, as well as a four-story entrance pavilion flanked by wings for both legislative chambers.

The Lion Of Lansing: A Brief History Of Michigan’s Capital Building - The Awesome Mitten
Photo courtesy of Stefani Chudnow

A Dome to Remember

One of the most memorable things about Michigan’s Capitol is its graceful, iconic cast iron dome. Modeled after the US Capitol dome, the ground to the very tip of the dome’s spire measures 273 feet high. Its interior rises to 160 feet and is 44.5 feet in diameter.

The dome begins with a collection of flags and culminates with a starry sky at its oculus. The artistry of the dome is intended to inspire visitors with thoughts of endless possibilities. In addition, Greek and Roman paintings by Italian artist Tommaso Juglaris surround the starry sky.

The rotunda floor contains nearly 1,000 pieces of glass that create a unique optical illusion. From above, it looks like the center of the floor sinks to form a bowl.

Life-Size Checkerboard

Another hard-to-miss feature of the Capitol is its iconic black-and-white checkerboard floor. The floor’s material comes from Vermont marble (white) and limestone (black). Visitors who look closely at the limestone tiles can see the fossils of snails and other marine animals that lived in the seas covering Vermont millions and millions of years ago.

Fifty States in One

The House Chamber and the Senate are exciting to see on a visit to the Capitol too. On the ceilings, visitors can see restored panes of etched glass. These beautifully display the coats of arms of all 50 states and various Victorian designs.

Due to the clear quality of the ceilings, a beautiful natural light pours in, and the filtered sunlight casts a soothing glow on the large rooms and their antique furniture.

The Lion Of Lansing: A Brief History Of Michigan’s Capital Building - The Awesome Mitten
Photo courtesy of Stefani Chudnow

Visit Michigan’s Iconic State Capitol

Michigan’s State Capitol is visited by thousands of people annually and remains an iconic landmark in Lansing. While it isn’t Michigan’s first Capitol, it remains an enduring symbol of American democracy that paved the way for other State Capitols.

Whether you’re a fan of Michigan’s history, you love beautiful art and architecture, or you want to shake off cabin fever, a visit to the State Capitol is a memorable one.

Is there anything you love about the Capitol not mentioned above? Let us know in the comments.

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