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America's State Capitols: An Architectural Explainer

Like much of the built environment in the U.S., they are a bit more similar than you’d hope, and yet harbor plenty of intriguing variety.

New York's state capitol in Albany required multiple architects and 32 years to finish. (Library of Congress)

You might, in the abstract, expect a dazzling range of difference in 50 variants on the same theme. But if states are laboratories of democracy, architects of state capitols have been copying over their lab mate’s shoulders.

Consider a few traits: Thirty-nine of them have domes; a considerable majority feature symmetrical wings for senate and house chambers; porticos and rotundas seem almost obligatory; almost all are built of granite or limestone.

Obviously, these traits bring to mind that most familiar of capitol buildings, the national one, and yet the imitative lineage is more complicated than that. The U.S. capitol derived inspiration from earlier state predecessors.

States selected the finest architects of their day to design their capitols about as often as they selected their finest citizens to be governors—not very frequently. The vast majority of these buildings were the work of architects of lesser-to-vanishing renown. There are a few works by eminent American architects, one by McKim Mead and White, two by Cass Gilbert, and one partially to Henry Hobson Richardson’s credit. And yet the first three of those are obvious experiments on familiar models, all looking far more like the national and state peers than anything else.

The capitol is a unique American building type. Like much of the built environment in the U.S., capitols are a bit more similar than you’d hope, and yet harbor plenty of intriguing variety. In 1976, Henry Russell Hitchcock wrote the only substantial appreciation of their form and design, Temples of Democracy: State Capitols of the U.S.A. He noted:

Skyscrapers and state capitols are America’s unique contribution to monumental architecture. The skyscraper is a product of function and structure; the state capitol owes its special character to symbolism. To most Americans today architectural symbolism means church design—the steeple and the pointed Gothic arch. Yet far more significant to the United States are earlier, Classically inspired architectural features, first built by colonial legislatures long before the opening guns of the Revolution. Their creators were legislators who saw in the dramatic possibilities of architecture a means of expressing the spirit of liberty. The vision was an accurate one: Those architectural features developed into symbols for the young nation, eventually taking on an abstract authority in the architecture of state capitols. Since the second decade of the nineteenth century the symbols have dominated every legislative building erected in the United States. Their story through two centuries of American building is a chronicle more continuous than any other, even that of the church and private house.

The Virginia capitol was the first to eschew the traditional colonial “state house” naming convention (which a number are still called) and invoke the grander antecedent of the Capitolium overlooking the Roman forum. The oldest State House, Maryland’s, preceded the Declaration of Independence, begun in 1772. It introduced spectators’ galleries and pioneered some aspects of the capitol form that have proven subsequently dominant, such as balanced legislative chambers and a central steeple or dome.

If the prevailing definition of “professional architect” was still nebulous in the early decades of the United States, almost none of the architects who designed capitols met it. Many were, in effect, designed by committees and executed by master builders. Some unlikely suspects had a hand in their creation. The Virginia State Capitol’s basic plan was the work of Thomas Jefferson and French Architect Charles-Louis Clérisseau and executed by others. The Ohio Statehouse was partially the work of Hudson River School artist Thomas Cole.

Construction on Maryland’s state house in Annapolis preceded the Declaration of Independence. (Library of Congress)

Capitol design was often considerably local work. Charles Bulfinch was one enterprising exception, whose work on the Massachusetts State House led eventually to commissions for the Maine State House and work on the national.

Federalism of some sort was an early common trend, soon supplanted by Greek Revival styles, particularly in the Southeast, where it’s well-represented by the capitols in Alabama, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Revivals are made to fade away, however, and this one did, virtually dying off by the Civil War.

Louisiana built a mock Gothic castle in Baton Rouge, abominated by one frequent river traveler. Mark Twain wrote in Life on the Mississippi:

It is pathetic enough that a whitewashed castle, with turrets and things—materials all ungenuine within and without, pretending to be what they are not—should ever have been built in this otherwise honorable place; but it is much more pathetic to see this architectural falsehood undergoing restoration and perpetuation in our day, when it would have been so easy to let dynamite finish what a charitable fire began, and then devote this restoration-money to the building of something genuine.

It’s still there, although it’s a wonder what Twain might have thought of its replacement—more on that later.

Formulas emerge

The Civil War roughly inaugurated a lengthy and more familiar mode of capitol construction. Most of the capitols that rose between then and the early 20th century explicitly aped the national model. Both state capitals and capitol buildings themselves were often on the move in this era, if not to new towns then from small plots in the center of town to grander crests somewhat outside of them. Swelling domes were de rigueur. Decor was frequently ornate. Width decisively supplanted depth as a prevailing characteristic, with wings ubiquitous.

The two examples by familiar architects stand out. Cass Gilbert’s splendid Beaux-Arts Minnesota capitol was a personal showcase for the architect, a son of St. Paul returned from New York for a plumb commission.

Such local favoritism is an abiding trait in capitol design throughout any era. The other great capitol of the era, McKim Mead and White’s Rhode Island State House, was only a result of unsatisfactory outcomes from a first round limited to in-state architects. Their Italian Renaissance capitol, with a dome modeled on St. Peter’s Basilica and Rome (one of the largest unsupported domes in the world) is a rightful landmark.

Competitions limited to in-state architects were fairly common: Pennsylvania’s capitol, designed by a Philadelphia firm, would seem to vindicate nativist approaches, others may not. Nationally-prominent architects entered other competitions—and often lost to competitors savvier in cultivating design commissions and local taste. As Hitchcock wrote, “Architects with less training learned more readily that radical architectural concoctions must be made palatable with familiar spices.”

Michigan’s state capitol in Lansing was designed by Elijah Myers, who also designed state capitols for Texas and Colorado. (Shober & Carqueville Lithograph Co./Library of Congress)

The most intrepid traveling salesman of the era was Elijah Myers, who designed the Texas, Michigan, and Colorado capitols, trading on a reputation for accessible grandeur. Myers was no hack, however, displaying a repeat tendency to experiment with projecting colonnades, and the considerably unusual coloration of the Texas capitol’s brown granite. Alfred Piquenard designed two capitols, in Illinois and Iowa, both quite different, with the latter the nation’s only to boast five domes, a structure slightly reminiscent of the Reichstag. Cass Gilbert later completed a second commission, the West Virginia state capitol, with his son.

The era featured plenty of good old-fashioned graft and scandal. There were disputes both over the exhaustion of local quarries and the use of out-of-state stone. Myers was fired from both his Texas and his Colorado commissions over cost disputes. One Colorado commissioner stated: “The state has got his plans, and has paid for them. You see we don't need him.” Myers also regarded the Wyoming state capitol as a flagrant ripoff of his own work.

New York State’s capitol’s construction history, to no one’s surprise, was likely the most scandal-ridden. It was originally designed by Thomas Fuller, who built the Canadian Parliament buildings, but he was relieved due to cost overruns and a lingering disrepute with the recently-deposed Tweed Gang. Henry Hobson Richardson and Leopold Eidlitz overhauled the entire plan of the capitol, steering an Italian Renaissance base in a Second Empire and Richardsonian Romqnesque direction before they were also fired by new Governor Grover Cleveland for perceived profligacy. The capitol was finished by another architect largely along the lines of their plans. It ultimately required 32 years to finish.

Virginia’s state capitol in Richmond as seen in 1860. (Library of Congress)

Decades-long construction periods and multiple architects are traits that strongly link most capitols to their principal stylistic predecessors, temples and churches. These projects often frustrate simple attributions of authorial agency.

There are some interesting quirks: for instance, the Wisconsin State capitol is a rare cruciform structure. Washington State’s capitol complex is the fullest domestic realization of a classical hilltop campus—the Roman Forum or Acropolis with much better landscaping. Richard Upjohn’s Connecticut capitol is a rare French and Gothic revival fusion.

Modernism arrives

Nebraska’s Capitol in Lincoln as seen in 1938. (John Vachon, Library of Congress)

Nebraska’s capitol launched a new modern era of capitol construction with a tower bearing a strong resemblance to Eliel Saarinen’s work. Continuing this trend of prairie modernism, North Dakota’s capitol is an an Art Deco skyscraper that looks like a piece of Rockefeller Center on its way to the Badlands.

The tallest, and probably most infamous, of these tower capitol’s was Louisiana’s. It’s the sort of result that might come about had Twain issued his earlier wish to the wrong genie. This Art Deco monument to Huey Long was completed with blinding speed in 15 months. Just a few years later, it was the site of his assassination (the grounds contains his tomb, to wrap up that thread neatly).

Modern forms didn’t always prevail. Delaware’s capitol complex in Dover is a 1930s throwback, a kind of Colonial Williamsburg to actually use, and Oregon’s is a hybrid of traditional and contemporary forms.

Hawaii’s state capitol is high-modern, but details that reference the state’s geography emerge with a closer look. (Library of Congress)

Supplementary structures were built to accommodate growing governments in the 1960s, most of them highly immemorable. Frank Lloyd Wright proposed a spiked glass-canopied Arizona capitol which he titled “The Oasis.” Instead, Arizona built three drab structures to house its state government. New Mexico’s capitol is designed to resemble the Pueblo Zia Sun Symbol from above, but does not make nearly as strong an impression on the street level. Edward Durrell Stone’s North Carolina legislative building is better, a fine example of “New Formalism,” but also the source of widely conflicting critical and popular evaluation.

The last capitol, Hawaii’s, is certainly the most unusual. A collaboration of the Hawaiian firm Belt, Lemmon and Lo and the San Francisco firm John Carl Warnecke and Associates, it looks like a high-modern concrete structure. Then, natural details emerge: Columns supporting its roof resemble palm trees; its fantastic Senate and House chambers were built to evoke volcanoes. An open-air central atrium offers a permeability unthinkable in most state climates, barring dome disasters. Fitting nicely into Hitchcock’s description of the building type, symbolism really does define its character—perhaps more than most of its brethren.

About the Author

  • Anthony Paletta
    Anthony Paletta is a freelance writer located in New York City. He's contributed to the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Metropolis, Architectural Record, and other publications.