NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — As Tennessee celebrates it’s 225th birthday, News 2 has been taking a closer look at the people, places and events that have shaped our great state.
Recently, News 2 spoke with the man who literally wrote the book on the ins and outs of the Tennessee State Capitol. Dr. Wayne Moore shared his insider knowledge with Nikki.
While they walked around the Capitol, he pointed out little-known facts about the historic center point of our state.
Dr. Moore is the former Assistant State Archivist and has devoted his career to learning everything there is to know about Tennessee history.
“This is the oldest working statehouse of all 50 states in America,” Moore said. “And when this building was built, everyone in state government was located here and all the functions of state government were housed here.”
Nashville wasn’t always home to the capitol. Previously, it had been moved around from Knoxville to Murfreesboro and even Kingston. Nashville eventually became its final destination.
“It was here in Nashville in the 1830s, and they wanted it to stay here,” Moore said. “So the mayor and municipal leaders of Nashville bought this property as the highest point in Nashville – perfect site for a grand State Capitol.”
It came at a price unheard of in Nashville real estate today. “They bought it for $30,000 and gave it to the state free, $1, I think to build the Capitol here,” Moore said.
William Strickland, an architect from Philadelphia, was selected to take on the task of designing and building it. Strickland apprenticed under the masterminds who built the U.S. Capitol.
Moore said the Tennessee Capitol’s Greek-inspired shape came from a time when many government leaders saw Greece as the home of democracy. And what better place to highlight democracy than in Tennessee?
“So it’s a very vibrant, active democracy, and Tennesseans are kind of in the forefront of that,” Moore said. “The state was much more important in 1840s and 50s, even than it is today. And, it was the home of Andrew Jackson, a lot of national leaders.
The stone that gives the Capitol its gravitas came from a quarry in Nashville’s own backyard.
“There was a quarry that belonged to a man named Samuel Watkins. Watkins college is still around here in Nashville. And he, for a few thousand dollars, allowed the state to quarry from that site,” he continued, “And they built the first paved road in Nashville to haul it up here to the hill to start building.”
Constructing the stone took some major expertise on Strickland’s part. The Capitol features a tower weighing in at 4,000 tons and 18-foot stone piers.
The Capitol also houses several massive chandeliers, originally fueled by gas and containing up to 48 burners. Today the lights run on electricity.
“Strickland had to do it right or this building wouldn’t be here today. This building will be here 200 years from now,” Moore said. “It’s a very, very solid, permanent structure.”
Unfortunately, the labor used to build the Capitol came at a great price.
“Some of the anonymous people who built this thing, they used a lot of convicts from the prison, which was also right down Charlotte, across from Watkins’ property,” Moore said. “They used a lot of enslaved individuals that did the quarrying, that leveled this hill off before they started building on it. They did a lot of the stonework.”
Dr. Moore said it’s important to remember the forced labor and sacrifice that went into constructing the Capitol.
“[It] took a lot of hands to build this building. Not all [were] getting paid for it.”
Another dark cloud over the Capitol’s history is that Strickland died in the process of creating his masterpiece.
“Strickland, his health starts to deteriorate in 1854, and he must have known it was coming because in the appropriation in this building from the legislature in that year, they put money in there for a tomb for him, for the architect,” Moore said. “He dies in April of ‘54 and he’s buried in the porch just outside that window.”
Strickland is not the only person whose tomb is housed within the Capitol walls. It’s also a final resting place for Samuel Morgan, the chairman of the building commission. President James K. Polk and his wife are also buried on Capitol grounds.
Once the Capitol building was complete, finishing the landscaping surrounding the building had to be put on hold, due to the Civil War.
“The war breaks out in ’61 and Nashville falls to the federal army in ’62,” Moore said. “This becomes basically a fort. The Union Army fortifies the hill. They build a palisade around it. They put cannons up here. They expected the Confederate Army to attack Nashville to try to retake it at some point.”
Some of the war’s remnants remain at the Capitol today.
Dr. Moore pointed, “You’ve got Union troops quartered here. There’s graffiti up in the towers still from Union soldiers with a lot of time on their hands, just scribbling.”
Tennessee 225: Dive into the history of the Volunteer State.
As Tennessee rings in its 225th year, the state will forever be indebted to the love and labor put into creating the state capitol. A structure sturdy enough to house the men and women who lead the state for 225 more years and beyond.