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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: A Source of Pride for a Sleeping State

When Raleigh was established in 1792, the town consisted of four 99-foot-wide streets, a few 66-foot-wide streets, and five public squares. One of the squares occupied the center of the new town and was reserved for a capitol building, or State House, to house the state government. The North Carolina legislature set aside $10,000 to build the State House, which was completed in 1796. In 1822, William Nichols, the state architect, was hired to make the plain, small building more elegant. Between 1822-26 he stuccoed the exterior and added classical details which made the State House more fashionable; in addition, he added a third floor, rotunda, and dome.

On June 21, 1831, the remodeled capitol building was destroyed by fire. Ironically, a smelting pot of zinc being used to fireproof the building tipped over onto the roof and started the blaze. For the next 18 months, Raleigh's status was uncertain as the debate over moving the capital to Fayetteville reopened. The original protest that Raleigh would "never rise above the degree of a village" had proven true. Fayetteville, on the other hand, maintained its commercial advantages. If designated the capital, the town expected to become a metropolis, something North Carolina still lacked. Fayetteville failed to gain enough support, however, and Raleigh remained North Carolina's capital.

In December 1832, the legislature agreed to build a new capitol on the original site. They appropriated $50,000 and established a board of commissioners to plan a building similar to the old State House, but larger as well as fireproof. The commissioners selected the New York architectural firm of Ithiel Town and Alexander Jackson Davis to design the structure. The Town-Davis firm was famous for designing buildings in the Greek Revival Style, which was closely identified with the monumental public buildings of the nation's capital city, Washington, D.C., and the government buildings of several states. The firm already had completed the Connecticut State Capitol in New Haven and was at work on Indiana's capitol building. Town presented a plan for North Carolina's capitol, but the legislators felt the design looked too much like a Greek temple. William Nichols, Jr. was then asked to submit a plan for a capitol that would more closely resemble the remodeled building his father had executed.

Construction began on July 4, 1833, but Nichols's involvement in the project soon ended. The legislature then reappointed Town and Davis to continue construction. Although the walls already had been begun, Town modified the design to reflect the Greek Revival Style. This time, the legislature approved the design. In the fall of 1834, David Paton, a young architect from Scotland, took charge of construction. He brought in several skilled stonemasons, and with some of his own changes, completed the North Carolina Capitol in 1840. A festive celebration lasting from June 10-12, marked its completion.

The commissioners had asked for a "structure that would be an object of pride and admiration for the people of a State that had little in the way of man-made splendor."1 In fact, it was reported early in the project by a legislative committee that the commissioners had sacrificed "much of convenience and comfort" to the desire to build "a noble monument to...the people of North Carolina."2 The committee's desire for such a noble monument had cost almost $533,000—more than three and one-half times the state's total revenue in 1840. The results seemed to justify the expense. When the building was completed, the commissioners reported proudly that "the State possesses a building which for solidity & beauty of material, uniform faithfulness of execution, and for Architectural design, is not surpassed, if indeed equaled, by any building in the Union....And to North Carolinians it will remain for Centuries, an object of just & becoming pride, as a noble monument of the taste & liberality of the present generation."3 A contemporary report stated: "this political Temple, the Capitol of North Carolina, will vie with any legislative building in the Union, if not the world, and presents one of the finest specimens extant of classic taste in Architecture."4

Questions for Reading 2

1. Why was the first State House of North Carolina remodeled? What happened to the building in 1831?

2. Why do you think the building commissioners wanted a grand and elegant capitol?

3. Do you think a building can boost citizens' pride in their state? Why or why not?

Reading 2 compiled from Catherine Bishir, North Carolina Architecture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990); Henry Russell Hitchcock and William Seale, Temples of Democracy: The State Capitols of the U.S.A. (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1976); North Carolina State Capitol Education Staff, "A Tour of the Capitol," 1994; John L. Sanders, "The North Carolina State House and Capitol, 1792-1972," unpublished manuscript, North Carolina State House Archives, 1972; John L. Sanders, "This Political Temple, the Capitol of North Carolina" (Popular Government, Fall 1977); Harry L. Watson, "'Old Rip' and a New Era" in Lindley S. Butler and Alan D. Watson, The North Carolina Experience: An Interpretive and Documentary History (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1984).

1John L. Sanders,"The North Carolina State House and Capitol, 1792-1972," unpublished manuscript, North Carolina State House Archives, 1972.
2 Ibid.
3 John L. Sanders, "This Political Temple, the Capitol of North Carolina"
(Popular Government, Fall 1977), 1.
4Senate Reports of the Joint Select Committee on Public Buildings and Rebuilding the Capitol (Raleigh: State of North Carolina, 1841).

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