The Michigan State Capitol was the first of three designed by architect Elijah E. Myers in the 1870s and 1880s. The successful completion of Michigan's statehouse established Myers as the premiere capitol-builder of the post-Civil War period, and secured his career as one of the nation's most prolific architects of public buildings. No architect was responsible for more state capitols than Myers, and no single architect had more influence on their design in the latter years of the 19th century. Many of these capitols are still in use around the country today as familiar parts of our American heritage.
Myers was among the first to use the National Capitol in Washington, D.C. as a model, and his design for Michigan established the standard for state capitols for decades to come. Myers' lofty dome, symmetrical design and balanced wings became a powerful symbol of America's democratic form of government -- a symbol as valid today as it was over 100 years ago.
According to Marlene Elizabeth Heck, "A close examination of the architecture of the Gilded Age (1865-1914) reveals Elijah E. Myers to be one of the most successful, if not the single most successful and important architect of public buildings during this period."
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on December 22, 1832, Myers studied law but decided on a career as a carpenter. He was a friend and possibly an apprentice to a prominent Philadelphia architect, Samuel Sloan.
Myers moved to Springfield, Illinois in 1863 and began his career as an architect. After completing several smaller projects, he received his first important commission -- the Macoupin County Courthouse in Carlinville, Illinois.
In the 1870s and 80s, open competition for architectural services was introduced in an effort to improve and codify public morality and professional ethics, but this, instead, led to bribery, influence-peddling and frequent attempts to discredit competitors. Myers was accused of defaming competitors for the Texas Capitol commission and suit was entered against him. Because of his penchant for fee cutting he was unpopular in the architectural profession. Myers was, however, a superb draftsman and an able architect/businessman/salesman who could provide a structurally sound building at a low cost.
In 1870, when the Board of State Building Commissioners issued its invitation for designs for the Capitol Building, it included strict guidelines with a ceiling cost of $1,200,000 and a warning to architects against the use of superfluous ornamentation. Myers' plan was unanimously accepted for reasons of cost and simplicity of design. At the dedication of the capitol in 1879, the House of Representatives thanked the Commissioners because the new building, "passes into the possession of the State not only free from debt, but absolutely free also from the odor of fraud." Myers' fee was about 3% of the building's final cost, considerably below the 5 to 10% charge now recommended by the American Association of Architects. Thus, the State saved money by hiring him.
Upon receiving the Michigan Capitol commission, Myers moved from Springfield to Detroit. His architectural practice expanded with the receipt of many contracts for public and private buildings from Virginia to California, including additional state capitols and numerous structures across the State of Michigan. Myers' buildings employed a variety of styles but were all structurally sound and built at moderate cost.