July | August 2017

10 Captivating Capitol Buildings

By Jim Stembridge
American state capitols have evolved only moderately in the more than 200 years since their early beginnings in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Typically, state capitols were designed, from the earliest, to have multi-storied wings housing the legislature’s two chambers, with galleries for viewing by the public, on two sides of a central rotunda opening high into a dome. Often, the governor’s ceremonial office also opens onto the rotunda. In 12 states, the supreme court also meets in the capitols.
Ten states have adapted to this “ideal” in particularly atypical ways.


Alaska is sometimes referred to as the only state without a capitol; the 1931 building that functions as the state’s capitol supposedly was built as a Juneau warehouse. Modified inside with committee rooms, legislative chambers and offices, the building was transformed into a state capitol with the addition of a four-columned Jeffersonesque portico (porch) at its entrance


In Hawaii, the central “rotunda” is a lanai, open above to the sky, open at its front and back to the mountain and ocean breezes, and the city of Honolulu. The 1969 building is a beautifully symbolic volcano, said to emulate nearby Punchbowl, which is now a military cemetery. Public entrances to the legislative chambers are broad glass doorways off the open-air lanai. Hawaii’s “dome” is the dramatic tropical sky: sun and rain, moon and stars, clouds and clear.


The Illinois capitol fits the conventional mode—dome and rotunda in the middle and legislative chambers on either side—but the capitol is unique among all the domed capitols; at 361 feet, it is the tallest. Construction began in 1868 on a site known as the Mather Block in Springfield, but only after the decision was made to make nearby Oak Ridge Cemetery, rather than the Mather Block, the final resting place of President Abraham Lincoln.


Louisiana’s capitol in Baton Rouge is unique for its relationship to one particular individual, former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Huey P. Long. The nation’s tallest capitol, it was completed in 1932. Long, who was its inspiration from the start, died from an assassin’s attack inside the building three years later and is buried on the building’s grounds.


Nebraska, in its 1932-completed capitol in Lincoln, took the then-risky step of building the first office tower capitol rather than a traditional dome. Perhaps as cover for its daring design, the building is finished in exquisite Gothic detail, with intricate carvings that make it a national treasure.


New Jersey boasts the largest number of additions to its capitol, crowded between the Delaware River and the streets of Trenton, some six add-ons in all since the original structure, or what’s left of it, was finished in 1792. The governor’s office occupies part of the original 1792 state capitol. The lovely dome and rotunda were added in 1845. The latest addition, completed in 1999, includes a wonderful visitor center and a fine café.


In Santa Fe, New Mexico’s is the nation’s only round capitol building. From above, it is the shape of the Zuni Zia sun symbol, a circle radiating in four directions. Its curving corridors are filled with works of New Mexican artists. The “Zia” also appears on the state flag; thus New Mexico is the only state with a diagram of its state capitol as its state flag.


New York’s capitol in Albany is unique for its complete lack of a dome, cupola or any other central roof feature. Some say it looks more like a cathedral or fancy European hotel. The finely crafted interior, especially its gothic detail and grand staircases, however, leave no doubt as to its central place in the history and politics of New York state.


North Carolina’s capitol in Raleigh has been abandoned by the state’s legislature and state Supreme Court and is rarely used by the governor. That’s a good thing for architectural history buffs. The building they left behind has been preserved as the nation’s most authentic 19th century state capitol and grounds.


North Dakota’s state capitol in Bismarck is the only one in the nation that is nonsymmetrical. Both legislative chambers are on the left and an executive branch tower is on the right. The 1935 building is finished in carefully crafted art-deco detail, and contains the Theodore Roosevelt Roughriders Gallery: portraits of famous North Dakotans, including Roger Maris, Peggy Lee, and, of course, Lawrence Welk.




Jim Stembridge worked as legislative staff in Oregon’s Capitol in Salem for more than a decade. He visited the 50 state capitols to see how each state exhibited the classical ideals of democracy. “Every state’s capitol is unique,” Stembridge said. “One of the fun things about visiting each of them is to see how individually and creatively each state molds itself into the structure and detail of its capitol building, incorporating features that cradle and nurture American-style representative government.” His book, Fifty State Capitols: The Architecture of Representative Government, is available at many state capitols, state museums, state archives and historical society gift shops.