Skip to main content

The First Capitol

The first State Capitol, completed in 1828, was known as the Territorial Courthouse until Michigan became a state in 1837. Designed by Obed Wait and constructed of red brick, the Courthouse/Capitol was one of the earliest Greek Revival buildings in Michigan with a fine Ionic portico and a tower which rose to a height of 140 feet. Built at a cost of $24,500, this building served the State Territorial Government and the State legislature from May 5, 1828 to March 17, 1847, when the capital was moved from Detroit to its permanent location in Lansing. The building then became a public school and library until it burned in 1893. Known as Union School, it was, at one time, Detroit's only high school.

The State Constitution of 1835 contained the provision that, '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 eighteen hundred and forty-seven, when it shall be permanently located by the legislature". As 1847 approached, Detroit pressed to keep its position, but interior villages were jealous of the power and influence of Detroit and the majority of legislative votes were outside of Wayne county. Four primary arguments were given for moving the capital inland:


  • - To increase the defensibility of the capital by moving it away from the Canadian border,
  • - To promote settlement in the inner regions of the state,
  • - To make the capital more accessible to the people of the entire state, and
  • -To boost the economy of the interior

A heated and lengthy debate ensued in the legislature and the names of many interior cites and villages were presented, although the primary contenders were Ann Arbor, Jackson, Detroit and Grand Rapids. At one point the people of Marshall were so sure of their town's selection that they built a governor's mansion.

Debate turned into bickering and, eventually, into deadlock. Many names were presented as a joke, including that of Copper Harbor at the northern-most tip of the Upper Peninsula. One morning after a fall of snow, a member arose and moved to take up the bill, offering as reason that, "it would undoubtedly slide easily that morning."

Finally, Joseph H. Kilbourne of Meridian Township in Ingham County proposed the Township of Lansing which was, at the time, little more than a "hole in the woods" and unknown to most legislators. Accepting the site as a compromise, the House and then the Senate approved the location which the legislature named the Town of Michigan.

In 1848 the town of Michigan was renamed. After considering a variety of possibilities such as Huron, Pewanogowink, Kinderhook, El Dorado, Marcellus, Thorbush, Houghton, Harrison, Washington, Cass, Swedenborg and Okeema, they agreed on Lansing.

The Second Capitol

Michigan's second Capitol building was erected in 1847 on the block now bordered by Washington and Capitol avenues and Allegan and Washtenaw streets in Lansing. Designed by Israel Gillett, it was of simple and graceful design -- a two story frame structure, painted white with green wooden shutters and topped by a tin cupola. Including a sixteen-foot addition built in 1865, the total cost was $22,952.01. It was intended as a temporary home for Michigan legislators, as the original designers of Lansing had set aside the highest site in the town for a permanent Capitol. Sold, when the third Capitol was occupied in 1879, the building was then used in the manufacture of wooden handles and bent work until it was destroyed by fire in 1882.

On January 1, 1871, Governor Henry P. Baldwin, in a message to the legislature, pointed out the necessity for a new Capitol building. The legislators agreed, and on March 31, 1871, the Governor signed a bill "for the erection of a new state capitol, and a building for the temporary use of the state officers." The act also empowered the Governor to appoint a Board of Building Commissioners to be charged with the design and construction of both buildings. Appropriated for the new capitol was $1,200,000, to be raised by a 16 7/8 cent, per year, tax on Michigan residents for six years. The ultimate cost, including furniture, fittings and improvement of the grounds, was $1,427,743.78.

The Third Capitol

Commissioners Ebenezer O. Grosvenor of Jonesville, James Sherer of Bay City and Alexander Chapoton of Detroit were confirmed by the legislature and Allen J. Bours of Lansing was appointed Secretary. Governors Baldwin (1869-72), Bagley (1873-76), and Croswell (1877-80) served as ex-officio members. The Commission announced a design competition and, according to Mr. O. L. Jenison, "Originally the designs were required to be submitted by 1 December, 1871, but because of the Chicago fire of October 1871 which destroyed or damaged some of the entries, the deadline was extended to 28 December. Altogether there were twenty entries from which the winner was announced on 25 January, 1872, and the architect was Elijah E. Myers, Esq. of Springfield, Ill."

Preparations were underway by late August of 1872 and construction began a month later. By September of 1873, Lansing, a town of 7,000 was readying for the Cornerstone Laying Day with an expected crowd of 30,000 to 50,000 visitors. On October 2, 1873, following a parade and speakers, the five-ton granite cornerstone with its historic documents and memorials was lowered into place and sealed. It was a great occasion.

The editor of the Isabella County Enterprise voiced his opinion, "Gone -- Our wealthy citizens have again gone to see the cornerstone of the new capitol laid. They ought to put some potato bugs under that stone, to let the rising generation see 'what their fathers fit'."

It was a day with few problems. According to The Detroit Post, there was "Nothing to do -- Detectives Bishop and O'Neil who went to Lansing to look out for the light-fingered gentry who were expected to be present at the laying of the cornerstone, returned home yesterday morning thoroughly disgusted, having found nothing to do. For some reason the 'mob' failed to put in an appearance and no case of pocket-picking was reported."

The Portland Observer provided this sidelight, "If any of the bricks from the State Capitol are missing, we know where they are. A few were emptied into this town Thursday night, judging by the shape of their hats that's where they carried them."

On September 23, 1878 with construction and finishing completed, the new Capitol with its 139 rooms, was "ready for delivery." Official dedications followed the inauguration of Governor Croswell on January 1, 1879.

Visitors came from all over to see the new State House. For many it was a new and strange experience which was evident in their questions and comments. One lady after viewing both Legislative Halls remarked, "I s'pose one these is for the Republicans and the other for the Dimmicrats [sic]." Another asked whose initials "A.D.", were on the cornerstone.

On one occasion the building superintendent was escorting a group through the Supreme Court Chamber. He reached the door and said, "Here is the egress." One lady questioned her companion, "What did the gentlemen call it? I've come a good ways and I want to see all there is."

After touring the building and riding in the elevator, a visitor asked if he could go into the "tunnel", but was satisfied when told "the tunnel isn't running today."

Another gentleman asked to see the "libratory." When asked if he meant the State Library, he said he guessed that was it. A visitor viewing the empty shelves in the newly completed library, was told it would be many years before all the shelves were filled with books. Upon reaching Representative Hall with a hundred empty desks, he commented, "It will be a long time before those desks are occupied."

Source: Excerpts taken from Michigan's State Capitol, History Art & Architecture, published by the Michigan Department of Management and Budget, circa 1988.