Pennsylvania State Capitol

State capitol building of the U.S. state of Pennsylvania

40°15′52″N 76°53′01″W / 40.26444°N 76.88361°W / 40.26444; -76.88361Construction startedNovember 7, 1902 (1902-11-07)CompletedAugust 15, 1906 (1906-08-15)InauguratedOctober 4, 1906Cost$13 millionClientCommonwealth of PennsylvaniaOwnerCommonwealth of PennsylvaniaHeight272 ft (83 m)Technical detailsFloor area629,898 sq ft (58,519 m2)[1]Design and constructionArchitect(s)Joseph Miller HustonOfficial nameState Capitol Building, PennsylvaniaDesignatedSeptember 14, 1977Reference no.77001162[2]
U.S. National Historic Landmark
DesignatedSeptember 20, 2006
U.S. Historic district
Contributing property
DesignatedFebruary 27, 2013Part ofPennsylvania State Capitol ComplexReference no.13000287[3]
A black-and-white photo of a building situated on a hill and partially obscured by trees. A cupola with a clock sits on the roof.
The Hills Capitol (1822–1897)

The Pennsylvania State Capitol is the seat of government for the U.S. state of Pennsylvania located in downtown Harrisburg which was designed by architect Joseph Miller Huston in 1902 and completed in 1906 in a Beaux-Arts style with decorative Renaissance themes throughout. The capitol houses the legislative chambers for the Pennsylvania General Assembly, made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate, and the Harrisburg chambers for the Supreme and Superior Courts of Pennsylvania, as well as the offices of the Governor and the Lieutenant Governor. It is also the main building of the Pennsylvania State Capitol Complex.

The seat of government for the state was initially in Philadelphia, then was relocated to Lancaster in 1799 and finally to Harrisburg in 1812. The current capitol, known as the Huston Capitol, is the third state capitol building built in Harrisburg. The first, the Hills Capitol, was destroyed in 1897 by a fire. The second, the Cobb Capitol, was left unfinished when funding was discontinued in 1899.

President Theodore Roosevelt attended the building's dedication in 1906. After its completion, the capitol project was the subject of a graft scandal. The construction and subsequent furnishing cost three times more than the General Assembly had appropriated for the design and construction; architect Joseph Huston and four others were convicted of graft for price gouging.

The Pennsylvania State Capitol is often referred to as a "palace of art" because of its many sculptures, murals, and stained-glass windows, most of which are Pennsylvania-themed or Pennsylvanian-made.[4] The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 2006; the boundaries of the designation were expanded to include the Capitol Complex in 2013 with the capitol as a contributing property.


William Penn formed the first government of the then-Province of Pennsylvania on October 28, 1682, in Chester, Pennsylvania.[5] The government did not have a regular meeting place and often met in Quaker meeting houses or at private residences in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania's first statehouse, now known as Independence Hall, was built in Philadelphia starting in 1732 and was completed in 1753.[6] With both the Pennsylvania General Assembly and the First and Second Continental Congresses, and the Confederation Congress, three predecessors of the modern Congress of the United States occupying Independence Hall from 1774 to 1789, the state legislature considered proposals for moving the seat of the state government. John Harris Jr. offered to give 4 acres (2 ha) and 21 square perches (5,717 ft2; 531 m2) of land near the banks of the Susquehanna River in central Pennsylvania to the state, provided that it be eventually used as the site of the capital.[4][7] Harris also laid out a city in 1785, near his plot of land, and named it in honor of his father. In 1799, the legislature voted to relocate the capital to Lancaster instead of Harrisburg, because of Lancaster's greater population.[4][8] From 1799 to 1812, the legislature resided in Lancaster at the Old City Hall.[9]

Hills Capitol

The legislature voted in 1810 to relocate the capital again and moved the seat of government to Harrisburg in October 1812 onto the land originally given by Harris a decade earlier.[10] An additional 10 acres (4 ha) was also purchased from United States Senator William Maclay.[11] The legislature met in the old Dauphin County courthouse for the next decade until a new capitol was constructed.[12] A competition was held to determine the design of the capitol starting in 1816, which "was the first formal contest for [designing] an American statehouse."[13] The designs submitted, including one from William Strickland, were rejected as being too expensive. Another contest was started in January 1819. Of the seventeen designs submitted, two were selected as semifinalists. One was from Harrisburg architect Stephen Hills, and the other was from the designer of the Washington Monument, Robert Mills; Hills' design was selected.[14] Hills had designed a "red-brick, Federal-style" capitol to "architecturally represent the function of democratic government."[4]

Construction began on the Hills Capitol in 1819, and it was completed in 1822. The capitol's construction and subsequent furnishing were estimated to have cost $244,500.[15] The Hills Capitol was visited by famous people, including the Marquis de Lafayette in 1825 and Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, (later King Edward VII) in 1860.[16] Abraham Lincoln visited the capitol in 1861 as president-elect, and then his body lay in state thereafter his 1865 assassination.[17] Pennsylvania's collection of Civil War battle flags, which were accumulated in 1866, was moved from the State Arsenal to the second floor of the capitol in 1872.[18] The flags were moved, again, in 1895 to the Executive, Library, and Museum Building.[19] On February 2, 1897, smoke was discovered from the Lieutenant Governor's offices around noon. By early evening, the Hills Capitol had been reduced to a "smoldering mass of debris".[20]

Cobb Capitol

A sepia-toned photograph of a large, rectangular building.
The Cobb Capitol (1899–1902)

After the destruction of the Hills Capitol, the now "homeless" legislature moved to a nearby Methodist Church.[21] There were soon demands that the capital be relocated to Pittsburgh or Philadelphia; the legislature quickly appropriated money to build a new capitol in Harrisburg.[22][23] Governor Daniel H. Hastings opted for a pay-as-you-go policy to allow the construction costs to be spread over multiple annual budgets. Governor Hastings also figured that $550,000 was enough to build "a small legislative building" that could be added onto as needed over time.[24] After building designs were submitted by various architects in another competition, Henry Ives Cobb was chosen in 1897 to design the new capitol. Construction of the Cobb Capitol began on May 2, 1898. The legislature met in the finished building, which they had deemed complete, even though it was an "unadorned, unfinished, several-story brown brick structure that looked like a factory" on January 3, 1899.[22] Cobb himself described the building simply as "ugly" but believed that he would be able to finish it eventually when more funding became available.[22][25]

Huston Capitol

The capitol building, photographed by William H. Rau shortly after its dedication

Governor William A. Stone appointed a new Capitol Building Commission in 1901. The commission then held another design competition for Pennsylvania architects only, which prevented Cobb, a Chicagoan, from submitting a design or finishing his capitol.[26] The Building Commission also stipulated that parts of the unfinished, current capitol were to be used in the new capitol. The General Assembly had appropriated $4 million for the construction of the capitol. It did not limit the total amount to be used in furnishing the building. This caused problems after the construction completion of the capitol.[26] The American Institute of Architects was opposed to competition, citing that the terms of the competition were "calculated to only 'encourage favoritism and injustice' and that they in no way obligated the Capitol [Building] Commission to select the best design or the best architect."[27] The Institute also advised that no Pennsylvania architects enter the competition; Philadelphia architect Addison Hutton was subsequently expelled from the organization after submitting an entry.[27] Joseph Miller Huston's design was chosen from nine entries in the competition in January 1902.

The ground was broken for the Huston Capitol on November 2, 1902, but the cornerstone was not laid until May 5, 1904.[28] Ownership of the capitol was handed over to the state government on August 15, 1906, and the Capitol Building Commission was dissolved.[29]

Two identical photos of a man looking out over a large crowd. The images are mounted side-by-side on a card.
Stereo card of President Roosevelt at the 1906 dedication of the Huston Capitol

Governor Samuel W. Pennypacker dedicated the new capitol on October 4, 1906. Former Governor Stone, who had become president of the Building Commission after leaving office, ceremoniously gave the key to the capitol to Governor Pennypacker. President Theodore Roosevelt, who had arrived earlier that morning by a special train to deliver a speech and tour the new capitol, declared it "the handsomest building I ever saw."[30] The Pennsylvania, Northern Central, Reading, and Cumberland Valley railroads each ran special trains to accommodate the crowds traveling to and from Harrisburg for the dedication.[31]

Although the building was completed, most of the artwork in and around the capitol would not be completed for another two decades. The murals in the rotunda were not installed until 1908, and the sculptures outside the entrance to the capitol were dedicated on October 4, 1911.[32] The collection of Civil War flags were removed from the Executive, Library, and Museum Building. After a parade and a ceremony, they were installed in glass display cases in the capitol rotunda on June 14, 1914.[33] The decoration of the capitol was completed on May 23, 1927, when the murals in the Supreme Court Chambers were unveiled.[34]

Graft scandal

William H. Berry was elected in 1906, shortly after the dedication, to the office of State Treasurer on a reform "fusion ticket". Berry was the only Democrat elected to a statewide office from 1895 to 1934. Governor Pennypacker deemed his successful campaign to be "one of those freaks of ill fortune".[35] Berry began investigating the costs of the capitol project and brought its $13 million pricetag to the attention of the public. Part of the reason for the discrepancy was Pennsylvania's "over-elaborate" and sometimes "unintelligible" method of "ordering and purchasing supplies, equipment [and] furnishings, commonly called the 'per-foot rule' ."[36] Because the methods of measuring under the "per-foot rule" were not rigorously enforced, furnishing could be intentionally overpriced by the supplier. For example, a flagpole installed on the capitol roof was priced at $850; Berry estimated the value of the pole to have been only $150.[37] Other expenses included $1,619 for a $125 bootblack stand and $3,257 for a $325 "mahogany case in the Senate barber shop".[38]

Pennypacker tried to demonstrate that costs associated with the capitol were reasonable in comparison with similar notable structures. He pointed out that the United States Capitol cost $18 million, but had "fifty-five less [rooms] than the Capitol at Harrisburg."[39] Pennypacker also showed how the New York State Capitol had cost $24 million, and was still unfinished.[39] After an investigation, a total of five people, including Huston, were convicted on December 18, 1908, and sentenced to two years in prison for "conspiring with State officials to defraud the State in the erection and furnishing of the Capitol."[40][41] The Superintendent of Public Ground and Buildings James Shumaker and Auditor General William Preston Snyder were also convicted. Among the convicted, John H. Sanderson and William L. Mathues died before going to prison.[41]

Brunner plan

A city located on the opposite side of a large river, with a domed building in the city center.
Skyline of Harrisburg from the Susquehanna River, with the capitol dome in the center

From 1912 to 1917, the state acquired all of the 541 separate properties that comprise the Eighth Ward east of the capitol. The Eighth Ward was situated between the capitol and a set of railroad tracks, then owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad.[42] Arnold Brunner was hired in 1916 to develop new accommodations for state government, which had already outgrown the capitol.[43] He introduced his plan in 1920, which called, first, for the demolition of the Eighth Ward.[44] Brunner planned two office buildings behind the capitol, the North and South Office Buildings, and these were separated by a courtyard he named the People's Court. The South Office Building was completed in 1921. The leveling of the Eighth Ward was finished in 1925.[42]

Although Brunner died on February 14, 1925, elements of his plans were still completed, except for his People's Court, which became a parking lot.[45] Brunner planned a bridge to cross the railroad tracks and connect the capitol with the highest point in the city at 13th Street.[46] Brunner had also originally planned to have another bridge span the Susquehanna River, on the west side of the capitol. After his death, parts of the bridge were redesigned and became the current State Street Bridge, which was completed in 1930. The Education Building, or Forum Building, was completed in 1931.[47]

Restoration and preservation

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission erected two historical markers on August 11, 1953—one commemorating the Hills Capitol and another for the current capitol.[48] The capitol was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on September 14, 1977.[2] Beginning in 1981, highly regarded historic preservation architect, Hyman Myers, of the Philadelphia architecture firm, Vitetta Group, oversaw the restoration of the capital building.[49] In 1982, the Capitol Preservation Committee (CPC) was created "to supervise and coordinate the historic preservation of the State Capitol Building".[50] One of the CPC's first projects was the preservation of the 390 Civil War flags and 22 flags from the Spanish–American War, which had been undisturbed since being placed in the rotunda in 1914.[51] Between 1985 and 1987, scaffolding was erected in the rotunda and the murals removed for restoration.[52] The statue atop the capitol dome was removed for restoration via helicopter in the summer of 1998, being returned in September of the same year.[53] It was decided to restore the Senate Chamber after it was flooded with 26,000 US gal (98,000 L; 22,000 imp gal) of water on February 14, 1999.[54] The capitol was declared a National Historic Landmark on September 20, 2006, during its centennial.[55] On February 27, 2013, the boundaries of the designation were revised to encompass the grounds and surrounding buildings.[3]


A stone, columned cupola atop a green, tiled-dome. The cupola is topped with a gold globe, upon which stands a gold statue with an outstretched arm and holding a staff.
The lantern of the dome, topped with the statue Commonwealth by Roland Hinton Perry, 1905
Bust of Joseph Miller Huston over the Capitol's keyhole
The Capitol in Fall

The capitol is 520 ft (160 m) long and 272 ft (83 m) tall.[56] It is 254 ft (77 m) wide at its center wing and its two side wings are 212 ft (65 m).[56] The facade of the capitol is constructed out of granite from Hardwick, Vermont.[57] The 94 ft-diameter (29 m) dome is topped by the gilded brass statue of Commonwealth by Roland Hinton Perry. Standing 14 ft 6 in (4 m) tall atop a 4 ft-diameter (1 m) ball, the statue is the personification of a commonwealth.[58] The dome features bright green Ludowici tiles and weighs 26,000 short tons (24,000 t) and was architecturally inspired by St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City.[59]

Huston designed the large bronze doors at the capitol's main entrance. They were modeled by sculptor Otto Jahnsen and were both cast in one piece using the lost wax method of casting by the Henry Bonnard Bronze Company.[60] The doors are decorated with scenes from the history of Pennsylvania, such as the arrival of William Penn and his peace treaty with the Lenape. Busts of people who were important in the construction of the capitol, like Governor Pennypacker, Boies Penrose, and Matthew Quay, decorate the edges of the doors.[61] The bust of Huston hides the doors' keyhole.

The entrance is flanked by two sculptures, entitled Love and Labor: The Unbroken Law and The Burden of Life: The Broken Law. Both were sculpted out of Carrara marble from models created by George Grey Barnard in 1909.[62]


The Pennsylvania Capitol Grounds, officially the Capitol Park, comprises 45 acres (18 ha) and 26.4 square perches (7,187 ft2; 668 m2).[42] The grounds are bounded by North Street on the north, 7th Street on the east, Walnut Street on the south and 3rd Street on the west. Arnold Brunner designed the layout of the grounds, which originally totaled only 15 acres (6 ha) from the land Harris and Maclay gave to the state. The remaining 29 acres (12 ha) were added when the state bought the Eighth Ward.

A 64 ft-tall (20 m) monument, dedicated to the citizens of Pennsylvania who died in the Mexican–American War, was built in 1858. The monument was not placed onto the grounds until 1868 and was moved to the southeast corner of the grounds in 1893 when the Executive, Library, and Museum Building was built.[63] In 1896–97, a monument, dedicated to former governor John F. Hartranft, was sculpted by Frederick Ruckstull. The 26 ft-tall (8 m) monument was unveiled on May 18, 1899, and was placed in front of the capitol. It was moved in 1927 to in front of the Executive, Library, and Museum Building.[63] Friends of Penrose in the General Assembly, who had died in 1921, passed legislation for a memorial to Penrose. The 16 ft-tall (5 m) monument was dedicated on September 23, 1930, and is located near the corner of North 3rd and Walnut Streets.[63]


The interior of a rotunda, with three half-moon paintings, are visible and two circle paintings between each.
The interior of the capitol rotunda. Two medallions and three lunettes are visible, from left to right: Spirit of Light, Law, Science Revealing the Treasures of the Earth, Religion and Spirit of Vulcan. Portions of William Penn's quote are also visible.

The Pennsylvania State Capitol houses the chambers for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, the Pennsylvania Senate, and the Harrisburg chambers for the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. The Capitol contains 475 rooms and has four floors, not including a mezzanine between the first and second floors, and a basement.[64] The bronze entrance doors of the capitol lead into the rotunda on the first floor with the grand staircase in the center. The staircase in the rotunda is an imperial staircase, similar to the one in the Palais Garnier in Paris, France.[28] The staircase leads to the mezzanine between the first and second floors before dividing into two staircases leading to the second floor. Edwin Austin Abbey painted four allegorical medallions around the base of the capitol dome, detailing the "four forces of civilization": Art, Justice, Science, and Religion. Four lunette murals were also painted by Abbey and "symbolize Pennsylvania's spiritual and industrial contributions to modern civilization."[32] The lunettes are situated in the recesses of each arch in the rotunda. The rotunda is paved with tiles, hand-crafted by Henry Chapman Mercer, from the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works.[65] Mercer produced 16,000 sq ft (1,500 m2) of tile, which includes "377 mosaics, representing 254 scenes, artifacts, animals, birds, fish, insects, industries and workers from Pennsylvania history".[65] The interiors of the rotunda and the dome are inscribed with a quote from William Penn made upon the foundation of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania:[66]

There may be room there for such a holy experiment. For the nations want a precedent. And my God will make it the seed of a nation. That an example may be set up to the nations. That we may do the thing that is truly wise and just.

House Chamber

The lower house of the bicameral General Assembly, the House of Representatives, has 203 members, elected for a term of 2 years, and presided over by the Speaker of the House. The House Chamber, or Hall of the House, is the largest of the three chambers at 90 ft (30 m) wide and 120 ft (40 m) long.[67] It is located on the south side of the rotunda.

A view of a large, ornately-decorated room with several rows of curved desks arranged in a semicircle. A large mural is visible on the wall at the far end of the room.
The Chamber of the House of Representatives from the gallery. The painting Apotheosis of Pennsylvania is visible on the far wall of the chamber.

The House Chamber was designed with an Italian Renaissance theme.[28] William B. Van Ingen created the fourteen circular, stained-glass windows in the House Chamber,[68] and Abbey painted its five murals.[69] The largest of the murals is situated behind the Speaker's rostrum. Named the Apotheosis of Pennsylvania, it depicts 28 famous Pennsylvanians.[a][70]

Senate Chamber

The Senate is the upper house of the state legislature and has 50 members, elected to four-year terms. The Senate is presided over by the President of the Senate, who is also the Lieutenant Governor. The 95 by 80 ft (29 by 24 m) Senate Chamber, or Hall of the Senate, is the second-largest chamber and was designed with a French Renaissance theme.[28][71] It is located on the north side of the rotunda, opposite the House. Violet Oakley painted the murals in the Senate Chamber. Ingen also made 10 stained-glass windows for the Senate Chamber.[68][69] Both the House and Senate Chambers are on the second floor, each with an entrance on the upper third and fourth floors leading to a press and media gallery.[72]

The only green marble ever found in Ireland is in Connemara, Galway. The marble is from the pre-Cambrian era so that tells us it is over 500 million years old. Earthquakes created the horizontal and vertical lines in the marble. The Streamstown Marble quarry in Clifden, Galway is the oldest of the Connemara marble quarries. It was opened in 1822 by the Joyce Family. The Joyce name was to become synonymous with Connemara Marble supplying buildings with Ireland’s marble.

In 1895, New York marble merchant Robert C Fisher imported large quantities to the States. It adorns many buildings, especially churches and cathedrals. The most famous examples in America can be seen in the Senate Chamber and Senate Post Office of the State Capital Building, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

In the Galway quarry, there is a pocket of a rare Connemara marble called Irish Jade. All the walls and door frames of the Senate Chamber of the Capitol Building in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania are done in a variety of Irish Jade marble. It was installed in 1901. It is the finest example of Connemara marble in any public building in the world.

Supreme Court Chamber

Divine Law mural by Violet Oakley in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's chamber

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is the court of last resort in the Commonwealth. The Superior Court of Pennsylvania is one of two intermediate appellate courts in the state. The Supreme Court Chamber, officially the Supreme and Superior Court Chamber, is used by both courts and was designed using ancient Greek and Roman themes.[28] It is located on the fourth floor of the capitol, on the east side of the rotunda. The Supreme Court Chamber is the smallest of the three chambers at 42 by 72 ft (13 by 22 m).[73]

Violet Oakley painted the 16 murals in the "Supreme Courtroom" to depict the history of law.[74] The cycle of 16 panels, painted between 1917 and 1927, begins and ends with Divine Law as its keystone, over the main entrance. Around the room clockwise, the murals represent the Law of Nature; Greek, Hebrew, and Christian Revealed Law; Roman Law of Reason; English Common Law; William Penn as Law-Giver; State, National, and International law, and finally, the Spirit of Divine Law.[75] A stained-glass dome, designed by Pennsylvania native Alfred Godwin, is in the center of the ceiling.[73]

Capitol Complex

The Pennsylvania State Capitol Complex includes the buildings owned by the Commonwealth, which are controlled by the Pennsylvania Department of General Services, and are centered on the capitol in Harrisburg.[76] The Capitol Complex became a National Historic Landmark in 2013 when the designation was revised to include not just the capitol, but the surrounding building as contributing property—except for the East Wing. The complex and greater area is protected full-time by the Pennsylvania Capitol Police—its dedicated law enforcement agency—as well as the Harrisburg Bureau of Police, which patrols the entire city.

The oldest building in the complex is the Executive, Library, and Museum Building. Situated next to the Hills Capitol and the Huston Capitol, it was built in 1894. It was designated the Matthew J. Ryan Legislative Office Building on June 14, 1999, in recognition of former Speaker Matthew J. Ryan.[77] The Ryan Office Building is the oldest building in the complex and was initially designed to house the State Library and State Museum of Pennsylvania, as well as the Governor's Office and Reception Room. Today it houses the offices of the members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.[44]

The seven-story North and South Office Buildings are situated behind the capitol and overlook the East Wing.[78] The South Office Building was renamed the K. Leroy Irvis Office Building on December 20, 2002, in recognition of former Speaker K. Leroy Irvis.[79] The State Museum and State Archives buildings were constructed in 1964. A 640 by 320 ft (200 by 100 m) addition, called the East Wing, was dedicated on December 2, 1987.[80] The East Wing replaced the decades-old parking lot and fulfilled Brunner's plan of a People's Court. It was built partially underground, such that the tallest point on the East Wing barely reaches the first floor of the capitol.[80]

A large plaza with a fountain in front of staircases leading t0 the second level of the plaza. The entire plaza is situated in front of and below a large, domed building. Two large rectangular buildings flank the plaza on either side.
The East Wing of the Pennsylvania Capitol (1987), with the 1906 Capitol behind, the Irvis Office Building on the left, and the North Office Building on the right, as seen in September 2010

See also

  • flagPennsylvania portal



  1. ^ Attorney General 1907, p. 656.
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  • Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee (2006). Literature in Stone: The Hundred Year History of Pennsylvania's State Capitol. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee. ISBN 0-9643048-8-0.
  • Pennypacker, Samuel W. (1911). The Desecration and Profanation of the Pennsylvania Capitol. Philadelphia: William J. Campbell.
  • Price, Matlack (April 1923). "Capitol Park, Harrisburg, PA: Arnold W. Brunner, Architect". Architectural Record. 53 (295): 287–306. ISSN 0003-858X.
  • Sauer, Richard A. (1987). Advance the Colors!: Pennsylvania Civil War Battle Flags. Vol. 1. Capitol Preservation Committee. ISBN 0-8182-0090-1.
  • Schehr, Elizabeth, ed. (2006). The Pennsylvania Manual. Vol. 117. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Department of General Services.
  • Sheets, Georg R. (2002). A Sacred Challenge; Violet Oakley and the Pennsylvania Capital Murals. Harrisburg: Capitol Preservation Committee.
  • "The Capitol" (PDF). Pennsylvania House of Representatives. 2007. Archived from the original (PDF) on January 15, 2009. Retrieved June 12, 2009.

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