Historic Preservation Feature is a series of articles on the efforts to save and reuse historic buildings, districts and sites in Pennsylvania.

Through the three centuries of Pennsylvania’s history, the build­ings that always have been both the functional and symbolic heart of the Commonwealth have been the seats of government. These statehouses and capitols bespeak much about the governmental structure and social ideals of the respective ages which created them. Indeed, the very change of nomenclature from statehouse to capitol is indicative of a new orienta­tion concerning the historical identity of government. As works of art, most of Pennsylvania’s statehouses and capitols have been representative of the highest development of several architectural styles in America over the past two and one-half centuries. In this context, it may surprise many readers to realize that several of Penn­sylvania’s capitols have been buildings of nationwide architectural influence. Moreover, many Pennsylvanians today may not realize that the Common­wealth’s eighteenth century statehouse also was the birthplace of both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.

Another background dimension re­garding these statehouses and capitols is the fact that the location of the state seat of government has moved three times since the founding of Penn’s “Holy Experiment” in 1682. From 1682 to 1799, all government offices were located in Philadelphia. In 1799, the state capital moved from Philadelphia to Lancaster; it remained there until 1812. Finally, in October 1812, the seat of government moved to Harrisburg. For the sake of accur­acy, it should also be noted that the state government moved to Lancaster during the winter of 1777-78, at the time when British troops occupied Philadelphia during the Revolutionary War. This progressive movement westward of the seat of government sym­bolized the western migration of the population which gained momentum at the close of the eighteenth century. The increase of population in western regions, plus the creation of new counties, formed the strong political impetus that eventually resulted in locating state government on the banks of the Susquehanna.

Despite the lofty ideals of William Penn’s social theories and the wealth of the new city, Philadelphia, the Commonwealth had no specific, per­manent meeting place for the Assem­bly from 1682 to 1736. This lack of any statehouse for more than half a century is in marked contrast to the early history of most New England and Sou them colonies, where a promi­nent governmental building usually was erected during the first stage of settlement. In Pennsylvania, the As­sembly seemed content to meet in a variety of buildings – taverns, Quaker meetinghouses and large residences­ – in Philadelphia and its immediate en­virons for over fifty years. Unfortunately, almost all the Philadelphia buildings where the Assembly is be­lieved to have met in this period were destroyed long ago.

James Logan’s countryseat, Sten ton, at Germantown, may be the one struc­ture possessing the most tangible link to the government of the opening years of the 1700s. However, it was Philadelphia’s Slate Roof House, on the corner of Second Street and Norris Alley, that was often the locale for im­portant governmental decisions made during the beginning of the century. Built between 1687 and 1695, most likely by the master builder James Porteus, the Slate Roof House was rented by William Penn on his second visit to Pennsylvania in 1699. Here Penn composed his Charter of Privi­ledges, granting equal rights to inhabi­tants of the Commonwealth. Follow­ing Penn’s return to England in 1701, the Slate Roof House became the seat of government for at least three years. The brick house, of H-shape, two stories in height, gradually fell into disrepair; it was razed in 1867.

On February 20, 1729, a petition was presented to the Pennsylvania Assembly requesting the construction of ” … a Market and State House.” On May 1, £2,000 was appropriated for that purpose. Evidently the most influential voice in making many de­cisions about the new building was the prominent attorney and Clerk of the Assembly, Andrew Hamilton. Although Hamilton often has been credited with the general design concept, it was a then-noted Philadelphia master builder, Edmund Wooley (1696-1771), who was paid for drawing the plans and elevations.

The square bounded by Chestnut, Walnut, Fifth and Sixth streets was chosen as the site for the state’s first permanent seat of government. Work was underway by 1732, but the As­sembly was not able to occupy its unfinished chamber until September 1735. In the following year, rooms for the Supreme Court and the Pro­vincial Council were ready for use. However, some interior details and furnishings were not completed until the early 1750s. In 1750 the con­struction of the projecting tower on the south elevation of the building was authorized; Edmund Wooley com­pleted this work by June 1753, and the famous bell bearing the inscrip­tion “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof” was hung shortly thereafter. The polygonal, wooden parts of this tower were dismantled in 1781 due to rotten timbers; for years. a squat. pyramidal roof crowned the massive brick base.

As completed, the Statehouse was the pride of the Commonwealth and the City of Philadelphia. With a facade one hundred and seven feet in length. it was the largest and most elaborate of all pre-Revolutionary statehouses in the American colonies. The Chestnut Street elevation of the Statehouse was illustrated on the Scull and Heap 1750 map of Phila­delphia, and it received international publicity two years later when pub­lished in the Gentleman’s Magazine for September 1752.

Today, the Pennsylvania Statehouse in Philadelphia would be termed. stylistically, a Georgian building. This term, actually a chronological designa­tion, applies to the high-style architecture of the English-speaking world in most of the eighteenth century. The central part of the building had a nine bay elevation facing Chestnut Street and the elegant tower on the south, facing Walnut Street. On each side, open arcades linked this main structure to symmetrical, flanking side wings. True to the Georgian norm, all aspects of interior and exterior design stressed symmetry, proportional rela­tionships and a vocabulary of orna­ment derived from ancient Roman sources. The ambitious five-part plan was the epitome of spatial configura­tion for its period. However, this statehouse, like most Georgian build­ings in the colonies, lacked a sense of visual iconography firmly linking it to its function. For example, the sym­metrical five-part plan was also em­ployed for large countryseats, and the tower could have graced a church. The visual symbolism of specific architec­tural forms that could be associated with a capitol was yet to emerge. Like the age which produced it, the State­house was erected as a very English building for a society that was, at once, English and colonial, in the strictest senses of these terms.

It was this Pennsylvania Statehouse, so English in its stylistic derivation, that witnessed the most important scenes of the emergence of the United States. Here the Continental Congress sat from 1775 to 1783, the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 and the United States Constitu­tional Convention met in 1787. No other American statehouse from the eighteenth century played a more crucial role in the founding of this country.

In the 1790s, Philadelphia was the capital of both the state and nation. While the federal government met in nearby buildings, the state Senate and House of Representatives, created as a bicameral Assembly in the state Con­stitution of 1790, continued to use the old Statehouse. However. a combina­tion of political pressure and dissatis­faction with Philadelphia caused the state government to be moved to Lan­caster in 1799. The Statehouse, now better known as Independence Hall, was sold by the Commonwealth to the City of Philadelphia for $70,000 in March 1818. Through the nineteenth century, the structure served many functions, some more mundane than noble; for example, as late as 1851, the Philadelphia dog pound was lo­cated in the basement. Veneration of the building gained momentum with the Centennial of 1876. As a result of an extensive restoration commenced in the 1950s, both the interior and ex­terior of Independence Hall have been returned to their 1776 appearances.

When Lancaster became state capi­tal in November 1799, there was a strong feeling that it would be only a temporary seat of government. No concerted steps were taken to allocate funds for the erection of a permanent government building, and the legisla­ture rented its quarters from the county. A two story, brick Georgian style courthouse that stood in the mid­dle of Lancaster’s Penn Square was the setting for state government for almost thirteen years; the House of Represen­tatives occupied the first floor and the Senate the second floor. The court­house was built between 1784 and 1787 by Lancaster joiner Frederick Mann, with a central steeple added in the late 1790s. Evidently the exterior design was closely patterned after Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia and measured about sixty feet square. A fine example of the Georgian style, the building was praised by the diarist Manassah Cutler in 1788 as “… the most elegant I have ever seen.” Faced with mounting political pressure, and despite the objections of both Phila­delphia and Northumberland County, an act was passed in February 1810 stipulating that the government should move to Harrisburg in two years. After the legislature, governor and other of­ficials left Lancaster, the Georgian courthouse continued to serve Lan­caster County until it was demolished in the spring of 1853.

It should be noted that one other Lancaster building was directly asso­ciated with the presence of state gov­ernment there from 1799 to 1812 – the Georgian Public Offices built in 1795-97 by the county on the west side of Penn Square. Some office space in this building was rented to the state. Later known as Lancaster’s Old City Hall, the structure now is a small museum.

In October 1812, the Common­wealth’s government did, in fact, move to Harrisburg; at least at that time the site of the future capitol was ready. When John Harris II laid out Harris­burg in March 1784, he reserved four acres for the state for purposes “as the government may desire.” On this land, two matching, fireproof buildings with monumental Ionic Order porticoes had been erected to house the records of the state Treasurer, Auditor General, Land Office and other departments. However, no permanent home for the government had yet been constructed; so again the legislature occupied a courthouse. This time the House and Senate moved into the Dauphin Coun­ty Courthouse on Harrisburg’s Market Street, both Legislative bodies remain­ing there until January 2, 1822. Built between 1792 and 1797, this building, locally known as White Hall on Market Street, was a simple, rectangular struc­ture with symmetrical wings. To pro­vide more space, a central, curved apse had been added by the Harrisburg master carpenter, Stephen Hills. After returning to its original function, the Dauphin County Courthouse was de­molished in the Victorian period to make way for a larger edifice.

During the years the government was moving from Philadelphia to Lan­caster to Harrisburg, far-reaching changes were determining, literally and symbolically, the shape of archi­tecture for future governmental build­ings in America. With new found in­dependence, both the national gov­ernment and respective states sought a style of architecture with an historical identity appropriate for the new re­public. The architecture of ancient Rome, in most cases, provided the most appropriate association; it evoked the conceptual parallels between the two republics. This Roman Revival architecture went farther than the mere application of columns and pedi­ments to otherwise straightforward structures. Ideally, it sought to ap­proximate important Roman public buildings, with monumental porticoes, central domes and interior rotundas.

This evocation of the nobility of the Roman past was not confined to architecture; the symbolism also ex­tended to nomenclature, as the former statehouses began to be called capitols. The word capitol originated in the Capitolium, a Temple to Jupiter near the Roman Forum. In the Roman Empire, the word denoted the princi­pal structure in a community, whether a government building or a temple. In America, the term saw very rare usage before the Revolution when, in 1699, it was applied to the new “Publick Building” at Williamsburg. Shortly after the Revolution, Thomas Jeffer­son’s Virginia Capitol at Richmond furthered the adoption of Roman architectural forms and symbolism.

Nationwide, the one government structure which exerted influence on all state capitols in the nineteenth cen­tury was the United States Capitol in Washington. This great building had a complex evolution, with construction commencing in 1793 and restoration taking place at this very time. The House and Senate wings were finished in 1857 and 1859 respectively. The cast and wrought iron dome was built between 1855 and 1863 from designs by Thomas U. Walter of Philadelphia. As was repeatedly the case throughout the country, U1e United States Capitol influenced the design of two capitols in Harrisburg.

With this background of construc­tion of new capitols on the federal and state levels, it is not surprising that the state advertised a competition for the designing of a capitol in 1816. The proposed structure was to be located on the 325 feet left vacant between the two fireproof buildings. With a first prize of $400, this was the first contest held in the country for the design of a state capitol. The known entrants included an obscure Harrisburg builder, Joseph C. Laveille, two nationally famous architects, Robert Mills and William Strickland, and the Harrisburg master carpenter, Stephen Hills. While the various submissions were slowly evaluated, Hills was em­powered to collect building materials. Only in the spring of 1819, after a total of seventeen proposals had been submitted, was Hills announced the winner.

It was this commission that trans­formed Hills from the master carpenter to the architect. Indeed, of all builders then available in the Harrisburg area, surely Hills had the most cosmopolitan background. Born in Ashford, in Kent, England, he emigrated to Boston in the 1790s where he surely came to know the works of Charles Bulfinch and Asher Benjamin. Before 1804, he moved to Lancaster, where he re­mained for the rest of the first decade of the nineteenth century. In Harris­burg, he rapidly gained the patronage of leading families with the capitol commission securing his reputation. After his wife’s death in 1822, Hills returned to England but came back to America in 1838 to design the Missouri Capitol at Jefferson City. He died six years later, in 1844.

The laying of the cornerstone for Pennsylvania’s first permanent seat of government took place on May 31, 1819. Work proceeded through 1820, with a total employment of 110 men. The original appropriation of $120,000 was augmented by an additional $15,000 for stone portico columns and a fireproof roof to the dome. Completed by December 1821, the capitol was dedicated on January 2, 1822 with a large parade, led by the 250-pound Hills.

The Commonwealth’s Capitol was a long, two story brick structure with a central, half-elliptical portico with Ionic Order columns. The entire build­ing measured 120 by 80 feet and linked the two matching buildings for records built in 1812. The elliptical portico entered to a central rotunda crowned by a dome with an encircling colonnade. Soon the building attracted much favorable attention, and its rep­resentation even embellished tureens made by an English potter. However, the Capitol’s architectural significance went beyond depictions and local pride; it set a norm emulated for a century throughout the country for state capitol design. As noted by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and William Seale in Temples of Democracy, in this capitol ” … the marriage of dome, rotunda, portico, and balanced houses united for the first time the architectural symbols of American democracy.”

This Old Capitol witnessed many important events, ranging from Lin­coln’s lying-in-state in 1865 to the State Constitutional Convention of 1874. By the 1890s, however, there was some dissatisfaction with the Capitol’s size. In the midst of an ap­parently growing controversy. the Capitol burned on February 2, 1897. Only roofless walls and six stark columns remained after the fire; the Harrisburg Telegraph reported that everything was ” … a sacrifice to the Greed of King Fire.” Today, the only visible reminders of this once-influen­tial capitol are two columns from its portico at the eastern end of the Market Street Bridge in Harrisburg.

In a rather quick move, the legis­lature approved $550,000 for a new capitol, and a Chicago architect, Henry Ives Cobb, was selected. By the spring of 1899, the shell of Cobb’s rectangular capitol was finished. At that time, the initial appropriation was exhausted, fraud was charged and Cobb was dismissed. A new legislature announced another competition in 1901, with an appropriation of $4,000,000 to complete the structure. This competition was denounced by the A.I.A. on the grounds that it was limited to Pennsylvania architects. Nevertheless, the commission was awarded to Joseph M. Huston, a Phila­delphia architect who had designed that city’s then-renowned Witherspoon Building. Under the new governor, Samuel W. Pennypacker, work pro­ceeded quickly; the speed may have been prompted by the fact that Gover­nor Pennypacker also was Chairman of the Board of Grounds and Public Buildings, which was empowered to use surplus monies for state building projects. On October 4. 1906. the grand new capitol was dedicated with the principal speaker being the Presi­dent of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt.

The stone state Capitol was the just pride of the Commonwealth; it had cost $10,000,000 and had 649 rooms. Built in the Italian Renaissance style, then being promoted as a part of Beaux Arts Classicism, the Capitol re­stated all the basic architectural sym­bols of democracy that had been in­troduced by Hills: portico, central dome, balanced wings and central rotunda. Crowning the 272-foot high dome was the statue “Miss Penn,” intended to symbolize the state.

Whereas the earlier capitols had been intended primarily as architec­tural creations, Pennsylvania’s 1906 Capitol expressed the unity of the arts on a lavish scale. The interior’s rotunda, with a marble grand staircase patterned after that of the Opera House in Paris, expressed this outlook. Indeed, the Capitol was designed as a veritable gallery of many of the coun­try’s leading turn-of-the-century artists. Joseph M. Huston commissioned the nationally famous sculptor, George Gray Barnard, to carve more than sixty statues. Many were not executed, but Barnard’s masterpieces are the groups entitled “Night” and “Day” flanking the steps at the main entrance. The rather vague relationship of the subject matter of these statues may be due to the instructions given by Hus­ton, who told Barnard ….. I consider you the greatest and I want you to do just what you will.” Other art dealt with subject matter more closely linked to the history of state and nation. For the House and Senate Chambers, the famous painter. Edwin Austin Abbey, executed murals with historical and patriotic themes. Abbey’s mural, “The Spirit of Light,” is often considered to be his most important painting in the Capitol. Violet Oakley, then the Commonwealth’s leading woman artist, also did many paintings. Her works grace the Supreme Court Room, the Senate Chamber and the Governor’s Reception Room. Probably most noted is her series entitled “The Vision of William Penn” done for the Governor’s Reception Room between 1902 and 1906. Of all the artists con­cerned with the creation of the Capitol, only Miss Oakley continued to serve the State after 1910; her paintings in the Supreme Court Chamber were finished in 1927. Another Pennsyl­vanian who enriched the Capitol’s interior was Henry Chapman Mercer of Bucks County; his tiles depict diverse aspects of the state’s richness, ranging from oil wells to oak leaves.

Although it might seem that this new capitol epitomized the summation of the Commonwealth’s heritage and resources on a grand and colossal scale, the initial reception of pride was soon clouded by scandal. Within a month of the dedication, fraud and graft were charged; the chief culprits appeared to be Huston, the architect, and a Phila­delphia decorator, Joseph H. Sander­son. Early in 1907 hearings on the Capitol scandal opened. Newspapers and magazines covered the testimony with titles ranging from “Harrisburg Frauds” to “Pennsylvania’s Palace of Graft.” It was revealed that the much reputed marble in the interior was really an imitation, and that the state had been billed $1,472 for a mahog­any table that could be ordered in a catalogue for $40. After months of publicity, the final verdict was that both Huston and Sanderson were guilty. Sanderson died shortly after­ward, but Huston went to prison.

Both governments and buildings, however, if possessed of character, will outlive the scandals of mortal errors. Such has been the case for both the 1906 Capitol and the state which it symbolizes. During the past sixty years, the Capitol has become the functional and visual nucleus for a growing complex of government struc­tures. Today the 1902-1906 Capitol is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and recently it was an­nounced that the building will be further preserved and augmented by a $27.9 million project.

In conclusion, what is most distinc­tive about Pennsylvania’s statehouses and capitols? The answers to this question may be as diverse as the very buildings which have served the Com­monwealth’s government for three centuries. However, Pennsylvania’s seats of government have been unique in several important respects. First, Independence Hall played a key role in the founding of this nation. Second, Hill’s Old Capitol at Harrisburg estab­lished the architectural iconography for American capitols that has endured to this day. Third, the present-day capitol is at once a masterpiece of the architecture, painting, sculpture and decorative arts of its age, while at the same time being the living center of the administration of the Common­wealth as it enters its fourth century of history.


Part I of this series (“Pennsylvania’s Architectural Heritage: Representative Styles as Seen in Lancaster County“) appeared in the Spring 1981 issue of Pennsylvania Heritage.


John J. Snyder, Jr. is the author of the first two publications for the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County – Lancaster Architecture, 1719-1927: A Guide to Publicly Accessible Build­ings in Lancaster County and Hand­book of Lancaster County Architec­ture: Styles and Terms.