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History minute: Gideon Shryock builds from the ground up

October 12, 2021 at 5:00 a.m.

Every great building project begins with a vision. Great architects bring those visions to life by designing masterful edifices that stand the test of time.

One of the most important architects in the South in the 1830s, Gideon Shryock, left a deep footprint in the architecture of Little Rock. In his long and distinguished career, Shryock was the mastermind behind many memorable and iconic structures across the South, including the Old State House in Little Rock.

Gideon Shryock was born in Lexington, Kentucky, in November 1802. He was one of ten children. His father, Mathias Shryock, was active in the local militia and was a builder by trade.

Lexington was a rapidly growing city, known for its prosperous businesses and elegant architecture. Mathias Shryock, a Maryland native, had no formal training as an architect but was nevertheless a skilled and imaginative builder with an eye for design. He built the family home in Lexington, a site that later became the campus of Transylvania University, the oldest university west of the Appalachian Mountains. The elder Shryock also built the Episcopal Church cathedral in the city and the childhood home of future First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln.

Gideon Shryock saw these impressive structures steadily being built throughout his childhood and spent many hours at his father's side learning the basics of construction and design.

Gideon Shryock attended a private school for his early education, but at the age of 21, he moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for further study of architectural and building techniques under noted architect William Strickland, who had designed and built the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville. At the time, no formal licensing system existed for architects. Most builders like Shryock oversaw both construction and design of buildings, not dissimilar to a modern contractor, and often learned from other master builders through apprenticeship programs.

He returned to Lexington in 1824 after a year away and opened his own firm. In 1825, the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort burned down. The legislature authorized construction of a new building, and Shryock's design won in a contest in 1827. The building was modeled after a Greek temple. Greek Revival design, as it was called, was popular among government buildings at the time.

Construction was completed in 1830, and it served as the Capitol until 1910.

In 1833, Territorial Gov. John Pope invited Shryock to design a new Capitol building for the Arkansas Territory as it prepared for statehood. Pope had been a member of the Kentucky State Senate while Shryock built the Old State House in Frankfort and was impressed by his work. It is a rare privilege that an architect is chosen to design such an important building as a Capitol, and Shryock designed and built two.

Shryock designed a grand new building for Arkansas, a Greek Revival building with marble columns not dissimilar to the Capitol in Frankfort; but it was too expensive for Pope, who then requested it be scaled back. Shryock's father died that year, preventing him from overseeing the project directly, but his assistant, George Weigart, went instead. Pope and Weigart kept most of the original plans intact, and construction began. Shryock corresponded with his team in Little Rock and helped guide the project while still in Kentucky. Weigart, unfortunately, died in 1834.

The building was nearing completion when Arkansas became a state in June 1836. The new state legislature convened for the first time in the still unfinished structure. Elijah More supervised the construction and the last details. The Capitol immediately became an iconic landmark of the city.

The Old State House served as the Capitol building for the state until the new, familiar, domed building was completed across town in 1912. After the Capitol was moved, the building served as the new campus for the medical school for the University of Arkansas. The medical school remained at the location for more than twenty years before it moved. The former Capitol was converted to a museum shortly afterward.

The Old State House was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1969. The building gained national attention when it served as the backdrop when then-Gov. Bill Clinton announced his run for the presidency in 1991 and as the site for his election as president in 1992. It was made a National Historic Landmark in 1997. It is now the oldest surviving Capitol building west of the Mississippi River.

Shryock continued to design and build many other notable buildings across the South in his long career. He would later design Curran Hall as a private home in 1842; it is now the Little Rock Visitor Information Center.

Shryock died in Kentucky in June 1880 at the age of 77.

Shryock's influence is still felt across the nation. Both former state houses are still popular tourist attractions as are many of the other edifices he created. The Old State House in Kentucky was added to the National Register of Historic Places and made a National Historic Landmark both in 1971. An elementary school was named for him in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1987.

A man can be judged by what he builds in his life and what he leaves behind. Shryock had a life that as monumental as his architectural creations.

Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and a resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society. Bridges can be reached by email at [email protected] southark.edu.

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