Explore the history of South Dakota’s State Capitol

KELOLAND.com Original

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Nestled in the central most part of the state is the Pierre, the South Dakota state capital. Although it is not the largest city in South Dakota, Pierre was chosen to be the temporary capital of South Dakota while they waited to elect the official capital city. In 1904, after putting up a solid campaign, Pierre was chosen as the permanent capital of South Dakota.

The capitol building was completed in 1910, after five years of construction. This building not only stands as a government landmark for the state, but it also represents the dedication and long campaigns that Pierre went through to become the secure the status of the state capital.

The road to become the capital city:

There were many rivalries in the fight to become the state’s capital city. Although a lot of people believe that the biggest rivals were Pierre and Huron that is not accurate, Leah Svendsen, Special Projects Coordinator for the Bureau of Administration said. Svendsen said that according to Marshal Damgaard’s book “South Dakota State Capitol: The first century” the biggest fights were actually between the cities of Pierre and Mitchell.

“It was a big campaign about location mostly,” Svendsen said. “Pierre being the center of the state, geographically, that was their biggest push…They said it would be most economical for the building to be built here [Pierre] for a lot of reasons. In the early 1890s they had just opened up a lot of the territory going west, gold rush, fur trading and all of those things, and because of the Missouri river was here and the railroad was here, it made a lot of sense just to have this be the capital.”

There was a huge debate and competition running for the spot and eventually the voters chose Pierre over Mitchell, Svendsen said.

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Page 12 of CapitalFight
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Building the capitol

The temporary capitol building was constructed in 1889, after Pierre won the original election. It was a two-story wooden building to house legislative chambers and government offices. Land for the project was donated by the railroad.

The temporary capitol building. Photo courtesy of SD Bureau of Administration.

Outgoing Governor Charles Herreid in his 1905 message to the legislature said, “South Dakota needs a new state house, fireproof, commodious and in harmony with its progress and prosperity.” 

Construction for the permanent building began in 1905 and was completed in 1910. The cost of the building was under one million dollars.

The state capitol building was constructed by Bell & Detweiler Architects of Minneapolis. Instead of creating a design, they decided to use the same design as the Montana State Capitol, with a few changes to make it more suitable to South Dakota, Svendsen said.

The building is a four-story Neoclassical building and features a copper dome, Corinthian columns, rusticated walls of granite and Bedford limestone and a decorative interior. The buildings granite foundation rests on boulders collected from the surrounding prairie. The native granite is also used for the capitol steps and some of the window trimming.

The interior of the capitol features several murals and paintings. Under the dome in the rotunda, there are four large round paintings of Greek Goddesses that symbolize the four major South Dakota themes: agriculture, livestock, mining and family. There is a flag display located under these paintings.

Four contemporary sculptures symbolize wisdom, vision, courage and integrity are featured in the rotunda, complementing the original artwork.

The “bright blue tiles”

Throughout the capitol floor, there are natural looking tiles. However, visitors notice that there is one style of tile that stands out from the rest, the bright blue tiles.

Legend has it that there were 66 tileists that laid that floor, Svendsen said.

“Those 66 people each got a bright blue stone to lay wherever they wished as their signature piece,” Svendsen said. “We can only find 55 of those tiles, so we don’t know if that legend is true or not, there are 11 tiles missing.”

Svendsen said they do think it is possible that some of the tiles were covered by walls. They also could have been destroyed or lost during the 1930’s drought, when there was a huge settling in the building that cased the floors to crack.

Everywhere that there was a crack in the floor, it was replaced with a heart-shaped tile.

Why is there an upside down baluster in the grand staircase?

“That is another legend,” Svendsen said. “We believe that the architect said ‘the only perfect thing in existence is God’ and so his building couldn’t be perfect. So, they placed that baluster upside down so that the building would not be perfect.”

Other capitol building features

The dome area used to be opened to the public, however it has been closed off to the general public. Now, it is only opened to VIP visitors. They take up dignitaries who the governor has requested, legislators, the interns and the pages to see the dome and have the opportunity to sign their name on the dome.

The cornerstone in the southwest corner of the building was laid on June 25, 1908. The cornerstone contains a time capsule filled with coins, newspapers, a Bible and other artifacts from that year.

In 2010 during the capitol building centennial, Governor Rounds created another time capsule, which is on display in a sealed glass case at the grand entrance of the rotunda. This time capsule will be opened by the 2110 governor, said Svendsen.

Christmas at the capitol

During Christmastime, the capitol becomes one of the highlight tourism spots. Christmas at the Capitol began in 40 years ago with just 12 trees, Svendsen said. These trees were all decorated by Dottie Howe and her family and Governor Janklow was also instrumental in organizing the display.

Svendsen said that during Christmas at the Capitol, Governor Janklow wanted the biggest tree they could find to put in the rotunda. Since they could fail to fit such a huge tree into the building, he said, “If I can’t have the biggest tree, then I want a forest.”

“And a forest is what he got,” Svendsen said.

Today, there are nearly 100 decorated Christmas trees lining the hallways and the rotunda of the capitol building.

The grandest tree is South Dakota’s official Christmas tree, which is the centerpiece of the tree display.

Capitol Restoration

Parts of the building were restored in the late 1970’s, including the governor’s office, Svendsen said. However, the main restoration of the building was completed in 1989.

Since Montana’s capitol is the sister capitol to the South Dakota building, they often are able to look at things happening in that building and are able to address them in the South Dakota building before the same thing happens.

There have been two restoration projects in recent years. After seeing Montana lose their glass block floor, South Dakota did a total reinforcement of that floor, Svendsen said.

In 2013, there was a complete restoration of the all the stain glass in the building. They removed every piece of stain glass in the building and shipped it off to have it re-leaded and restored. Now they have a climate controlled area behind the stain glass, they blocked out the sunlight from behind and use LED lights to illuminate it now.

The trail of governors

Svendsen is an advisory member of the Trail of Governors, which began in 2010 by a group of people who wanted to make bronze statues of all the governors and place them on a trail. The capitol is home to some of them, but not all of them, Svendsen said.

The trail only has six governors left before they are up to the current governor. Crawford, Sheldon and Gunderson will be unveiled on June 11, 2021 and Lee, Byrne and Bulow will be unveiled in June 2022.

“Then we will unveil current and future governors as they leave office,” Svendsen said. “Whether Governor Noem runs for a second term and is re-elected will determine when her statue is unveiled.”

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