Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

A mere one hundred or so miles separate Philadelphia’s Chestnut and Harrisburg’s Third streets. But the path­ – metaphorically, at least­ – between the Keystone State’s first and final capitol build­ings seems far longer and rockier than geography suggests. From the Commonwealth’s earliest days, when the government met in Philadelphia’s elegant State House (now Indepen­dence Hall), to the interim location in the Lancaster County Courthouse, and at last to the high-domed, high­style, capitol at Harrisburg, that circuitous path is strewn with intrigue, ambition, peculiar twists of fate, a few debacles, human failure, and­ – not least of all – human tenacity.

In the seventeenth century, Pennsylvania’s earliest lawmakers met, not in a formal government hall but in private homes or inns in Philadelphia. As the years and decades slid by, the legislature grew and so did its dissatisfaction with such an arrangement – one that often forced the delegates into close contact with the “rude and disorderly per­sons” who milled about warehouses and taverns of the city’s crowded waterfront.

If this wasn’t enough to make the Assembly consider finding a permanent meeting site in Philadelphia, the threat of leaving town altogether did. In 1728, with new representatives coming in from western counties such as Lancaster, many legislators were acutely aware that Philadelphia was hardly as central as it had once been. With this in mind, the Assembly asked the governor and Council to consider an entirely new location for the seat of government. Respond­ing quickly to the grim possibility that their city would cease to be the state capital, Philadelphians successfully petitioned the Assembly to make immediate plans for building an official state house.

Speaker of the Assembly and lawyer Andrew Hamilton, physician John Kearsley, and merchant Thomas Lawrence were charged with overseeing the project. They failed miserably as a committee; they disagreed and wrangled over both the building’s site and design. Although the legislature authorized the construction of a state house in 1729, more than one year passed before any progress was made. Even then, it was made only at the instigation of an exasperated Hamilton, who took matters into his own hands and began acquiring building materials, as well as land along Chestnut Street between Fifth and Sixth streets. Kearsley continued to protest, forcing the Assembly in 1732 to meet for a hearing on the matter. Andrew Hamilton, who is today best known for mounting a success­ful defense in the celebrated 1735 freedom of the press trial of publisher John Peter Zenger, emerged victorious; the legislators, approving his choice of site and concept for the building, granted him supervisory control over the project. Hamilton enlisted help in drawing up the plan from master carpenter Edmund Woolley, although it is not clear which individual to credit as the building’s chief designer.

In any case, the final result – Pennsylvania’s first state house – emerged as one of the handsomest buildings of the colonial era. Its Georgian style owed its grandeur to the balance and symmetry of the classical Palladian architecture from which it was derived: the door stood in the direct center of the building with an equal number of perfectly aligned windows on either side. Details such as keystones over the windows and stone panels between the floors provided both visual interest and unifying architectural elements. Except for the interior, the structure was completed by 1735. Two office wings, connected to the main building by arcades, were added the following year. A tower with an impressive staircase and steeple, as well as the great liberty bell, was not installed until 1753. Benjamin Franklin, having a final word in the matter, saw to it that a lightning rod to his specifica­tions was also secured in the new state building.

Inside, a large central hall separated the Assembly chamber to the east (there was only one legislative house at the time) and a supreme court room to the west. Above it, the second floor held a large reception and entertainment room that ran the full length of the building, with two adjacent, smaller meeting rooms. Although the windows had yet to be glazed and the interior paneled, the Assembly convened at its first official headquarters in September 1735. The new state house, imposing in structure and design, may have justifiably stirred the hearts of Pennsyl­vania’s citizens, although in at least one case it inspired, instead, a bit of mischievous graffiti on a tower wall

A Handsome State House, a well
finished steeple.
A Healthful County but a
perverse people.

For all the momentous events that eventually took place there – the meeting of the Second Continental Congress in 1775, the signing in 1776 of the Declaration of Indepen­dence, and the drafting in 1787 of the Constitution-Indepen­dence Hall could not escape the swirls and eddies of history. By 1799, the state government was ready to leave Philadelphia for a new home. Conditions in the city were crowded; filth and diseases, such as malaria and yellow fever, were rampant and posed a danger to every­one, including the lawmakers (see “Plagued! Philadelphia’s Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793” by William C. Kashatus III in the spring 1993 edition). But beyond such reasons for moving lurked one even more compelling: Pennsylvania’s population had continued to shift westward. Twenty-three new counties were formed between 1780 and 1800, many of them in the central and western regions of the Com­monwealth. Major opportunities for trade, new roads, and new canals would open up the western territories even more. Wasn’t Pittsburgh becoming known as the “Gateway to the West”? Philadelphia was no longer a lodestone. Lawmakers wanted – and demanded – a capital closer to the constitu­ents they represented.

So it was that in 1799 Gov. Thomas Mifflin approved a bill that would make Lancaster, not too far from Philadelphia, the new capital – at least with the representa­tives could agree upon a permanent location. That feat was to take another thirteen years. During the interim, the Assembly met in Lancaster’s brick courthouse, a replica of the earlier county courthouse in which Pennsylvania legislators had once before created a temporary capitol. In 1777, when Philadelphia was threatened by a possible advance upon it by British forces under Gen. Sir William Howe, Lancaster had been a safe haven for the Assembly until 1778, when it reconvened at Philadelphia.

Debates regarding the appropriate location for a permanent capital (and capitol) continued when the government conveyed itself to Lancaster. According to a notice published in Philadelphia’s Daily Advertiser on May 21, 1799, Harrisburg was a serious contender from the very beginning.

The seat of government of this State has recently been removed to Lancaster, the greatest inland town in the United States, sitting in a very rich, improved and populous country. It will before long, be permanently fixed at Columbia, Harrisburg, or some other place on the river Susquehanna.

Still, the question of where to settle echoed through the halls of the courthouse. Factions developed, support­ing one location over another. Deals were offered. John Harris, Jr., son of an English trader and Susquehanna River ferryman, had in 1784 promised the Pennsylvania Assembly four acres of land in return for permission to lay out two hundred lots for a town – eventually to be Harrisburg – above the site of his father’s ferry house. In 1802, Lancaster twice offered land to the Commonwealth as an incentive to keep state government in town. The Lancaster proposals, though, met with indifference.

When a group of citizens in 1809 and 1810 petitioned the state senate to bring the state capital to Northumberland, a new battle was ignited. Despite strong lobbying efforts – for Philadelphia, Lancaster, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and Middletown (Dauphin County) – Assembly members simply could not decide. Finally, after one more round of voting, now with Northumberland, Lancaster, Bellefonte, Carlisle, Columbia, Reading, and Sunbury all failing to win a majority of votes, the House and Senate agreed to make Harrisburg the seat of government. On February 21, 1810, Gov. Simon Snyder signed the bill into law, to be effective in October, 1812.

Just what lay behind Harrisburg’s victory? With so many vying to become the state capital, what competitive edge must the city on the broad Susquehanna River have held? Some behind-the-scenes events are blurred by history, but other factors remain conspicuous. For one, Harrisburg was in the right place. Much closer than Philadelphia or Lancaster to the center of the state, it provided easier access to the legislative delegates, who were no longer clustered in the eastern counties. Moreover, roadways from Harrisburg ran west towards areas of expansion and new economic possibilities. The four acres Harris presented to the Commonwealth may also have influenced votes. Free land must have seemed, after all, a fortuitous gift.

None of this means, however, that Harrisburg was particularly popular. The minutes of the Assembly do not specify the contents of the long and windy capital debates. Records merely document that “discussion ensued” after every bill that was brought to the floor. Some historians and researchers have speculated that the term “discussion” might represent a polite synonym for “hot debate.” Evidence does exist in a letter written by four fictitious writers and published in the Lancaster Intelligencer on February 19, 1805, that some poked fun at Harrisburg, probably in an attempt to bolster their own favorites.

The situation of Harrisburg, it must be acknowledged by every person of Candor, is one of the finest nature … As for Accommodations, we trust there will be nothing lacking in that point. If, however, Your Honors should not find the living here so comfortable as at Lancaster, there will be this advantage attending it, viz, by using a Spare Diet, your mind will be the more fitted for the arduous duties of Legislation … We conclude that, on this account, you will prefer our scanty fare to the high, pampered Living which you indulge in at Lancaster.

We have likewise been informed, that our Place is objected to, on account of the streets being sometimes inundated by water. We assure your Honors, that this seldom happens; never except in times of heavy rain; and should they, unfortunately, at any period during the sitting of the Legislature, be in that State, we hereby pledge ourselves to have canoes at all the public crossings in order to ferry over the Members free of all costs, the same to be paid out of the Corporation.

The letter was signed by Nicholas Frogpond, Samuel Tiggleginn, Timothy Shiverwell, and Simon Spindleshanks.

Notwithstanding the biting wit of some, Harrisburg had plenty of loyal enthusiasts with great dreams for the city. After Harrisburg became the Dauphin County seat in 1785, its importance grew, prompt­ing one citizen to write in a journal for 1795-1797: ” … the inhabitants exert their utmost efforts to procure to this place all the advantages to which it is susceptible and even indulge the hope that the seat of government of the State will be removed to their town.”

The rich ethnic mix of Harrisburg may also have put it in a favorable light. Several historians have speculated that its blend of cultures, which included a goodly proportion of German as well as Anglo­Welsh and Scots-Irish, better reflected the diversity of the new nation (and the Common­wealth) than the predominant­ly British orientation of cities such as Philadelphia and Lancaster. Harrisburg’s most powerful advocate was probably United States Sen. William Maclay, Jr. A lawyer, Maclay had married the oldest daughter of John Harris, Jr., served as a surveyor, and in 1772 established the town of Sunbury, Northumberland County. After his term of office, from 1789-1791, he settled in Harrisburg, where he became a key figure in the political life of the city. Whatever the details of his role in securing the choice of Harrisburg as state capital may be, it is certain that Maclay had played a part. As one of the first two senators representing Pennsylvania, he wielded enormous influence. More­over, he had inherited land in Harrisburg and was able to profit from it when the capitol was built.

The four acres that his father-in-law deeded to the Commonwealth turned out to be sandy-had, in fact, been sandy all along – and were locally famous for it. Indeed, when Harrisburgers needed silty soil for their gardens, they dug it out of the four-acre plot – so much so that it was unsafe, according to at least one historical account: “The assault [of gardeners digging] had its onset about 1801 and the resulting pits constituted a hazard by 1809. Inquiries resulted from children falling into holes by day and the drunks at night.”

Since no capitol could withstand such a flimsy foundation, William Maclay’s offer of ten acres of land abutting the Harris parcel proved fortunate. In 1810, when Harrisburg was officially legislated as the new state capital, the government also purchased Maclay’s property, which became the actual site of the new state building, at one hundred dollars per acre.

Whatever the real impetus for the final selection of the capitol grounds may have been, there is no question that the site turned out to be a beauty, described rather floridly in an article in 1820 in the Analectic Magazine.

An eminence of moderate height a little to the north of the built part of the borough, from which the eye takes in almost at one glance, a view of the whole town below; an extensive prospect of the river Susquehanna, which is here a mile in breadth, and peculiarly romantic and beautiful; a noble bridge, stretching on twelve broad arches across this wide stream; several villages scattered up and down its fertile and well cultivated banks, and on the north a line of blue hills, covered with wood … The situation is at once picturesque, command­ing, and healthful, and will, by its superior height, exhibit the public buildings to the greatest advan­tage, and show them at a distance of many miles, as objects of great magnitude and conspicuous beauty.

When Harrisburg was named the new state capital in 1810, Stephen Hills, master carpenter, was a well-known figure about town. To this burly English immigrant fell the task of constructing the first state buildings in Harris­burg. The initial authorization called for two fireproof offices “for the safe keeping of all the records and papers” of the Commonwealth. Hills accom­plished this in quick order and, by 1812, the twin build­ings, placed exactly three hundred and twenty-five feet a.part to leave room for the future capitol, had been erected on the newly pur­chased grounds above the river. Two stories high, the structures were constructed of brick upon a stone foundation, with five bay windows across and a pair of chimneys on either side of abbreviated hip roofs. At each entrance stood Ionic-columned porticoes complemented by broad stairs leading from the capitol grounds. These offices housed several state departments but not legislators, who were forced to meet on Market Street at the Dauphin County Courthouse. Although it had been somewhat renovated for its illustrious new occupants, the courthouse was more than ten years old and offered only cramped, inconvenient headquarters for the lawmakers.

Since a new capitol had never been formally autho­rized, time went by – unevent­fully in terms of the creation of a new state building and uncomfortably for the Assem­bly delegates. A piece in a Harrisburg newspaper, the Pennsylvania Republican, offered a vivid picture of what they faced.

People of Harrisburg, you have done well, since the Legislature have been in your borough … But you have not done all that is in your power. Members are generally in taverns and too many of them together. The taverns are good and the accommodations are excellent; many of the members would choose to continue in them but others would wish in retiring in the evenings to private rooms to digest the public business, to arrange their ideas to amuse themselves with books. This cannot be done in the taverns, they are too full; it cannot be done in the State House where the young men innocently indulge in hilarity. Your town would still be more agreeable, were there more private houses prepared to accommodate, from two to six members each …

In 1816, the Assembly finally passed legislation assuring the building of a new capitol at Harrisburg. All that was needed was money. The same act decreed that Independence Hall, Pennsylvania’s original state house, be sold to the City of Philadelphia, which would add seventy thousand dollars to the state coffers. Today, this gesture may seem to have been the defiling of a national shrine, but it was not looked at that way in 1816. The state legislature was far more concerned with finding the necessary funds for appropri­ating money than in keeping a building for which it no longer had any use. In fact, the Assembly had similarly raised funds when the government moved from Lancaster to Harrisburg in 1812-1813, and the Clerk of the House of Representatives sold its furniture to pay for upgrading the courthouse in Harrisburg.

The 1816 legislation also arranged for Stephen Hills to gather together the construc­tion materials for the capitol. Perhaps the members believed that once the stone, bricks, wood, chisels, axes, and crowbars were placed in readiness near the open space between the two office buildings, the rest might magically happen and they would finally have their capitol. There was no magic in sight, of course, and even after Hills had created his stockpile, he waited for orders. At long last, fearing an even greater waste of resources, Gov. William Findlay, in December 1818, notified both houses of the legislature that the building materials “may be injured by time … and have been gradually wasting.” His wanting provoked response and, more important, the necessary result. The following month, more money was appropriated and Hills was awarded the job of building­ – at long last – Harrisburg’s capitol.

A noble edifice, it was conceived as part of a harmo­nious whole with the two smaller office buildings constructed earlier. Measuring one hundred and eighty by eighty feet, it contained similar materials of brick and stone as well as design elements, such as the portico. A majestic dome, forty feet in diameter, was embellished by sixteen columns, with windows and niches alternating between them. Beyond the portico lay the rotunda, thirty-four feet in diameter. From it one could see the fluted dome ceiling and light that was to be “communi­cated from one branch of the legislature to the other”-the Senate on the west, the House of Representatives on the east. A circular double stairway rose in the rear, behind the rotunda. On January 2, 1822, a procession proudly made its way up Market Street to Third Street, from Third Street to the capitol grounds and, with Stephen Hills and his men following, moved into the rotunda and the House chamber for the formal dedication. For seventy-five years, Stephen Hills’ capitol graced Harrisburg.

It was past noon on Tuesday, February 2, 1897, a dark and dismal day. Rain and snow, driven by intense wind, twisted through the trees of the park and swirled around the columns and chimneys of the capitol. In the lieutenant governor’s office, a fire glowed in the hearth. Over in the west chamber a senator, annoyed by the insistent smell of smoke, sent a page to find out where it was coming from. Under the floors, in the walls, and beneath the roof of the beautiful state house, fire had begun its course of destruc­tion.

An alarm box from the capitol signaled trouble to the city firefighters, but improper wiring in the system miscued them and they rushed to the wrong address. Other fire stations raced to the scene, but twenty minutes had already elapsed since the first signal. It took another fifteen minutes for firefighters to train their hoses upon what was by now an inferno. But the nozzles could not be properly coupled to the hydrants on the capitol grounds, forcing the firemen to use other, more distant, hydrants. It was too late to stop the raging blaze, fanned by strong winds, from ravag­ing the entire building. Into the next day the capitol fumed and smoldered, leaving for Harrisburg’s citizens nothing to behold but a ghostly shell of what it had been.

The real cause of the fire was never dear. Some believed it to be faulty wires. Others thought the most logical source was the lieutenant governor’s open hearth fire. Most tantalizing of all was the speculation that the blaze was deliberately set to prevent an investigation by the Senate into some murky dealings of the State Treasury. “The ultimate fate of the Treasury,” reported Harrisburg’s Patriot, “is enveloped in the smoke which surrounds the Capitol.”

One day following the conflagration, Gov. Daniel Hartman Hastings announced a temporary new home for the government: Grace Methodist Episcopal Church (whose doors remain open today), which stands on State Street, just below the capitol. Hastings, who had gained a fine reputa­tion for his handling of another calamity, the cata­strophic Johnstown Flood of 1889, was eager to keep government in Harrisburg, lest others lobby to move it out of town now that it had lost its home. He put more than two hundred men to work install­ing new electrical, plumbing, and heating systems, furnish­ings, and carpeting to prepare the Gothic Revival church for the legislators. The House would use the first floor auditorium, and the Senate a second floor Sunday School room. For nearly a year, from early February 1897, through December 31, 1898, members used the church, while the parishioners attended services at an opera house at Third and Walnut streets. A history of Grace United Methodist Church, published in 1984, contains a pungent postscript.

Local wits wondered if perhaps the Almighty could reform the legislators since the electorate could not. Spittoons appeared in the aisles and cigar smoke wafted through the halls. The Legislature met in Grace Church … about as long as forbearing Christians could turn the other cheek to such a crowd.

The ruined capitol still stood. Some mourned it and wanted the new state house to be built upon the skeleton of the old, since Hills’ brick walls and dome had not been weakened in the fire. For them, it was a question of loyalty to the colonial-style architecture of bygone days. Others, such as editors of the Patriot, were unsentimental. “The capitol,” they wrote, “is now what it has long appeared to be: an antiquated ruin.”

For the most part, the Keystone State was ready to celebrate its growing ascen­dancy in commerce and industry with a brand new, modern building. A competi­tion was held for the best design, with Henry Ives Cobb, an established Chicago architect, selected winner. The year was 1897, and Cobb had planned a large building in the early American Renaissance style. Similar in many respects to the United States Capitol, its porticoes contained both a series of columns and roofed arches, or arcades. At either end stood similarly designed, porticoed wings, and atop the center, an immense dome based on Michelangelo’s design for St. Peter’s in Rome.

Extremely poor planning and appropriation of funds, though, meant that Cobb was provided with only half a million dollars to spend on his ambitious project. Cobb could only begin the building and then almost literally stop in midstream. The result was a capitol, in 1899, that resembled nothing so much as a brick warehouse, which a contempo­rary writer described vividly.

… There was a vast barracks of red brick, walls raw within and without, with a hole in the roof for a dome, covered over with rough boards to keep out the rain. The legislative chambers had been hung with burlap, and tawdry covering of paint and whitewash and gilding was spread on them. It was the mere brick skeleton of a vast and pretentious edifice …

Governor Hastings himself was furious, not with the architect, who was conscien­tious and well-intentioned, but with the four capitol building commissioners in charge of the project; they had utterly mismanaged their job.

The structure … is unworthy of your honorable bodies [the legislators] and is a disgrace to the Commonwealth. In its present condition it is hardly fit for human habitation …. There are scores of farmers’ barns in Pennsylvania more attractive in appearance than this building ….

The story of the capitol that now stands in Harrisburg warrants an entire volume in the annals of history. The facts, however, are simple enough: a new commission for the building was appointed and a new competition planned. Cobb was not eligible because the rules had been changed and only Pennsylvanians were invited to enter. The winner was Joseph Huston. With completely adequate funding, his design, almost identical to the unlucky Cobb’s, was brought to complete fruition.

Within Huston’s great new capitol, the six hundred rooms glowed with splendor and awed visitors with their sheer opulence. One of this century’s greatest muralists, Edwin Austin Abbey, created four magnificent rotunda paintings and began another before he died. The greatly admired Philadelphia artist Violet Oakley painted the remaining murals. Four hundred mosaic tiles conceived by Henry Chapman Mercer, illustrating the natural and social history of Pennsylvania, were incorpo­rated in the floors of the building. Sculptor George Grey Barnard, at the architect’s behest, created the allegorical groupings for the capitol in Paris – where they were adored – and brought them to Harrisburg, but their anatomi­cal revelations were too much for the crowd and they were in haste plastered with fig leaves.

During the dedication of the new state building in 1906, Pres. Theodore Roosevelt was enormously impressed and spoke only in superlatives. But at the same time, a dark shadow once again began creeping over the capitol, this time in the form of graft and corruption. Building construction costs had been inflated beyond belief. Committee hearings and investigations revealed the state was charged thirteen million dollars for four million dollars worth of goods and materials. The chief contractor, Auditor General William Snyder, and Huston were among those imprisoned for their crimes. The Common­wealth never recovered four million dollars of its losses.

Samuel W. Pennypacker was governor at the time. In writing The Desecration and Profanation of the Pennsylvania Capitol, his memoir and analysis of the scandal, he may inadvertently have produced the last, best summary of the saga that began with the earliest colonial capitol in Philadelphia and ended in Harrisburg at the opening of the twentieth century.

… It may well be that the Capitol on the banks of the Susquehanna, through the coming centuries … will be the more appreciated because of the fierceness with which it has been assailed, and that its granite walls will glisten in the sunlight of the future more brightly because of the murk and fog which followed its construction.

For what is the prize, the jewel in the crown – Pennsylvania’s present capitol – without all the human qualities that have played a part in its making? Perhaps it is, after all, the failures as well as the victories, the arguments as well as the resolutions, the whims of fate as well as the rationally con­structed plans, that give dimension and meaning to all mankind’s undertakings.


Showcasing rare documents, objects, and artifacts, “Pennsylvania’s Capitals: Three Cities, Three Centuries,” is on exhibit at The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg, through July 11, 1994. The exhibition examines the history of the three cities – Philadelphia, Lancaster, and Harrisburg – that have served as state capitals, the structures which served as state houses, and the roles that state government has played in the lives of Pennsylva­nians during three centuries. Additional information regarding “Pennsylvania’s Capitals: Three Cities, Three Centuries,” is available by writing: The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Post Office Box 1026, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania 17108-1026; or by telephoning (717) 787-4978. Admission is free.


For Further Reading

Barton, Michael. Life By the Moving Road: An Illustrated History of Greater Harrisburg. Woodland Hills, Ca.: Windsor Publications, 1983.

Beers, Paul B. Pennsylvania Politics Yesterday and Today: The Tolerable Accommoda­tion. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University, 1980.

Pennypacker, Samuel W. The Desecration and Profanation of the Pennsylvania Capitol. Philadelphia: William J. Campbell, 1911.

Shimmell, Lewis Slifer, ed. The State Capitol of Pennsylvania, Nineteen Hundred and Six. Harrisburg: The Telegraph Press Company, 1907.

The Pennsylvania Capitol: A Documentary History. Harrisburg: Capitol Preservation Committee, 1987.


Suzanne McInerney is an editor for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s Publica­tions and Sales Division. She received her bachelor’s degree in humanities from the Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg, and her master’s degree, also in humanities, from the Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg, in January 1994. She is currently co-authoring a medical/health-related book. This is her first contribution to Pennsylvania Heritage.