Alfred Piquenard, Statehouse architect

The question of who deserves credit for designing the Illinois Statehouse has a complicated answer.

  • When commissioners awarded the first design contract, newspaper stories called it “the plan of J.C. Cochrane,” referring to Chicago architect John C. Cochrane.
  • An early drawing of the building’s exterior carries the names of Cochrane and one of his partners, George O. Garnsey. Garnsey and Cochrane later fell out, with Garnsey claiming not only that Cochrane had taken credit for Garnsey’s work, but that Cochrane had bribed the commissioners to win the contract. (Springfield newspapers dismissed the bribery allegations as unproven and unlikely.)
  • When the Capitol was finally completed in the 1880s, a project that involved a major redesign of the building’s main entrance, the architect was William W. Boyington.
  • But the man who researchers say most deserves the title of Illinois Statehouse architect was a French immigrant, dissident and utopian, Alfred H. Piquenard. Piquenard also seems to have been primarily responsible for designing the Iowa Capitol (it helped that he was able to use many of the same drawings).

Piquenard’s grave in Oak Ridge Cemetery (SCHS)

Piquenard (1826-76) was born in the Normandy region of France and studied engineering and design in Paris. He joined the Icarians, a utopian socialist movement founded by French journalist and politician Etienne Cabet that espoused principles including cooperative industry, economic equality and communal child-raising.

Cabet decided to set up a demonstration Icarian community in the U.S., picking Texas as the location. Piquenard is thought to have been one of an “advance guard” of would-be Icarian colonists who arrived in New Orleans in March 1848. The Texas colony fell through, however, so Piquenard and about 260 other Icarians moved to Nauvoo, which had been recently abandoned by the Mormons.

Piquenard returned to France briefly in 1852, but was jailed for criticizing the French president and later emperor, Louis Napoleon/Napoleon III. His father bailed him out, and Piquenard returned in 1853 to the United States, settling in St. Louis.

When the Civil War began, Piquenard first joined a Union infantry regiment as a private; by the end of the war, he had been promoted to captain and commander of “Piquenard’s Company of Pioneers,” a unit of construction engineers.

Cochrane & Garnsey drawing of proposed Illinois Statehouse; undated (and different in important details from what was finally built). Published in History of Sangamon County, Illinois, 1881.

The partnership of Cochrane and Garnsey was one of nine firms that submitted proposals to design the new Illinois Capitol in 1867. A 16-person committee – a combination of elected officials and appointed commissioners – heard their pitches that July, and Cochrane’s plan was overwhelmingly endorsed.

“(M)uch of the ensuing design work was completed by partner George Garnsey and Alfred H. Piquenard, who joined the firm in February 1868,” according to an article about the building published on SAH Archipedia, the website of the Society of Architectural Historians.

Pieces of Iowa’s Past, a guide to the Iowa Capitol, discussed the relationship between Cochrane and Piquenard in an article based on a 2009 paper by Wayne Temple, formerly with the Illinois State Archives:

Cochran (sic) and Piquenard enjoyed a profitable partnership. Cochran obtained the contracts, and Piquenard designed the structures.

When the Iowa Commissioners advertised for a competition to submit plans to build a new Iowa Capitol, Cochran reused his plans for the Illinois Capitol for this Iowa competition. The Iowa Commissioners chose Cochran and Piquenard’s plan labeled “Palladian.” The duo was awarded the contract for building Iowa’s new capitol in 1870.

Iowa Statehouse (Pieces of Iowa’s Past)

Piquenard moved his family to Springfield in 1870 to oversee construction of Illinois’ Statehouse while also working on plans for the Iowa Capitol. Somehow, Piquenard also found time to design the David Davis Mansion in Bloomington, which was completed in 1872.

Pieces of Iowa’s Past adds:

Cochran went on to form an enterprise in Chicago. He continued his partnership in the Illinois Capitol but gave up his interest in the Iowa Capitol in 1872.

Upon acquiring both the Illinois and Iowa capitol building projects, Piquenard left for Europe to study domes and examine the newest building methods. Because Louis Napoleon was now in exile, it was safe for him to return to France.

Piquenard did not live to see either capitol completed. He died in 1876 of liver disease brought on by malaria, which he had contracted during the Civil War. In his obituary, the Illinois State Register commented:

Since the commencement of the (Illinois Statehouse) work Mr. Piquenard has been in constant supervision, and by his modesty, faithfulness, great capacity and unswerving integrity, not only held the perfect confidence of the Board of Commissioners of the new State House, but of this whole community, as well as of all who knew him, until his death. As an architect and practical builder, Mr. Piquenard had no superior in this country; and it will be difficult for the new State House commissioners to fill his place.

Piquenard is buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery.

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