Serving the State: the Murals in the Connecticut State Library and Supreme Court Building

JurisdictionConnecticut,United States
Publication year2021
CitationVol. 67 Pg. 478
Connecticut Bar Journal
Volume 67.





When first opened to the public in 1910 with decorations and accoutrements not quite finished, The Hartford Daily Courant described the Connecticut State Library and Supreme Court Building on Capitol Avenue in Hartford as one of "the most beautiful structures in this country.(fn1) The Framing of the Fundamental Orders and the Allegorical Representation of Education murals installed in 1913 in the Supreme Court room capstoned the interior decorative scheme and further enhanced the attractiveness of the building.

Influenced by the City Beautiful movement of the late nineteenth-early twentieth centuries, the building and its murals contributed both beauty and instruction to the important grouping of state civic structures built on Capitol Avenue by 1910. The City Beautiful movement formalized a concerted nationwide effort initiated by civic and political leaders to literally make cities beautiful. Through this beautification process, proponents of the movement aimed to educate local, state, and national populations in the correct standards of civic and patriotic behavior.(fn2)

The City Beautiful agenda stressed aesthetic harmony amongst a building's interior and exterior components. In most instances, this harmony extended beyond aesthetics to encompass lessons in civics revealed by a structure's architectural and decorative attributes. Architects, artists, and planners committed to the mission of the City Beautiful movement considered the ancient and historical past the most appropriate source of ideas for their building projects.

Within the context of the City Beautiful movement, the Connecticut State Library and Supreme Court Building marked a tribute to state government. Its monumental appearance communicated to Connecticut's constituents the importance of the library and court's historical, legal, and judicial functions. The building's classical features as well as the historical and allegorical content of the murals symbolized the patriotism and civic loyalty expected of state citizens and government employees alike.

As tributes to state government, the murals proved exemplary because of the potent messages they conveyed. Steeped in history, the pictures paradoxically played a part in Connecticut's adjustment to the dislocating effects of the industrialization, urbanization, and immigration which characterized the state's entry into the modern era.(fn3) To a general audience, the murals inspired patriotism and civic loyalty. They buffered the sometimes harsh realities of the present against the altruistic lessons of the past. To the Supreme Court, the Fundamental Orders mural, in particular, assumed a strong association with the onset of modern attitudes towards the practice of constitutional law in Connecticut. The Court's late nineteenth century usurpation of judicial review from the General Assembly initiated this shift. Cases heard by the state's high court during the opening of the twentieth century witnessed its aftermath.(fn4)


The murals and the entire building took shape under the direction of the Commission to Make Repairs on the Capitol and to Procure a Site for a New Building for State Officials.(fn5) Like many commissions convened throughout the country in the early twentieth century to oversee the development of important governmental structures, Connecticut's version consisted of prominent individuals involved in different aspects of public life. Established through General Assembly legislation in 1903, and renewed in 1905 and 1907, the Commission included: Morgan G. Bulkeley of Hartford, a former Governor, United States Senator, and President of the Aetna Life Insurance Company; H. Wales Lines of Meriden, one of the most successful building contractors in the state, a former Mayor of Meriden who had at different times also served in both houses of the Connecticut General Assembly; Charles C. Cook, another building contractor and architect from West Hartford, a devoted civic leader and formerly a legisldtor active in both houses of the Assembly; Willie 0. Burr, editor of The Hartford Daily Times; and Leon W. Robinson, a well known architect from New Haven. Supreme Court Justice Samuel 0. Prentice and State Librarian George Godard consulted with the Commission on most phases of the planning and erection of the new State Library and Supreme Court building.

In 1878, the State Library and Supreme Court moved from the Old State House on Main Street in Hartford to the new State Capitol designed by architect Richard Mitchell Upjohn. After almost three decades of occupation, crowded conditions in the Capitol prompted government officials to explore the possibility of constructing a new home for the library and court. George Godard bad complained persistently to Governor Abirarn Chamberlain about the lack of space in the library room for the state's growing collection of law books and archival material. In addition, Godard felt Connecticut's Royal Charter of 1662, the State Constitution of 1818, and the cherished collection of gubernatorial portraits should be removed from the library and displayed in a separate memorial ball.

The Commission purchased land for the building directly across from the State Capitol on Capitol Avenue. Groundbreaking ceremonies occurred in 1908. When opened in 1910, the new Connecticut State Library and Supreme Court constituted the third element in a grouping of state government buildings on Capitol Avenue. This grouping included the Capitol, the Library and Court, and the State Arsenal and Armory.


Together, the three structures defined an impressive state civic center, one that had been envisioned by Hartford's City Engineeir Frederick L. Ford in his 1904 publication, The State Capitol at Hartford To be The Center of a Conspicuous Group of Public Buildings(fn6) Along with Ford, many enthusiastic urban planners involved in the City Beautiful movement believed that public buildings in proximity to one another formed efficient units for the conduct of government business. Most importantly, Ford and others asserted that the siting of civic groupings on conspicuous and attractively landscaped promenades provided a meliorative visual counterpoint to the crowded and often unsightly conditions in densely populated industrial cities like Hartford. City Beautiful planners like Ford hoped that the interior and exterior beauty and monumental architectural features of the centers would spread patriotism and civic loyalty among the general citizenry.

Intellectually, the City Beautiful movement derived from the principles of positive environmentalism. Positive environmentalists considered the transformation of urban space into beautiful, well ordered, and harmonious environments a crucial step in molding a cohesive moral order built on patriotism and civic loyalty. Darwinian in outlook, this viewpoint held that the organic character of the city embodied a potential for betterment as part of its own evolutionary process. Concerned about the relationship of the physical appearance of cities to the moral state of their growing heterogeneous, immigrant populations, positive environmentalists espoused a benevolent secular philosophy towards life in the modern era.(fn7)

Architecturally, the connection between positive environmentalism and City Beautiful took shape in Beaux-Arts neoclassicism. Based on a loose interpretation of classical architecture extending from ancient Greece to the Renaissance, the Beaux-Arts emphasis on order, symmetry, and functionalism produced a harmonious appearance that conditioned the dignified atmosphere associated with civic groupings. The 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago highlighted Beaux-Arts as the style of preference for major public buildings. The fair's Court of Honor ignited public interest in civic groupings.(fn8)

Another important aspect of the Beaux-Arts style, modeled on a Renaissance practice, was the collaboration of architects and mural painters on a single building. Expanses of interior wall and ceiling space in large rooms intended for public gatherings required decoration. Like the Beaux-Arts buildings in which they were housed, murals functioned as symbolic and educational tools promoting civic loyalty and patriotism. Moreover, a mural applied to a well defined architectural space added to the harmony of the building's appearance.(fn9)

In cities throughout the nation, Hartford included, positive environmentalism influenced a demand voiced by City Beautiful activists for civic groupings of Beaux-Arts style public buildings. This influence materialized in many different city planning efforts and in the founding of numerous civic improvement and beautification societies. Frederick Ford's 1904 publication represented an early manifestation of the drive to make cities beautiful. In the same year, local artist Charles Noel Flagg founded The Municipal Art Society of Hartford, an organization dedicated to beautifying the city. Commission member Morgan G. Bulkeley, Commission advisor and State Librarian George Godard, and Hartford City Planner Frederick L. Ford were among the Society's founding members. In 1907, Hartford became one of the first cities in the nation to establish a permanent city planning agency. Finally, the Carrere and Hastings 1912 report, A Plan of the City of Hartford, written for Hartford's Commission on the City Plan, lauded the Library/ Court, Capitol, and Armory as "an impressive and monumental state group of which the city may be justly...

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