During much of the Colonial period, North Carolina was without a fixed capital. Governors lived in their own homes and the Assembly moved from place to place, meeting in private homes, and in courthouses when available.
In 1722 the Assembly selected Edenton as the capital, but years passed before modest government facilities became available. By then the center of the population had shifted southward, and the government again became migratory.
Several efforts to establish a seat of government failed until 1766, when the town of New Bern was selected. Construction of Governor Tryon's Palace began in 1767 and was completed in 1771. This new structure served as the governor's residence and office, as well as a meeting place for the Upper House. However, when New Bern was threatened by enemy attacks during the American Revolution, the government took to the roads again, meeting in both coastal and inland towns of the state. The "palace" soon became neglected and in 1798 all but one wing burned to the ground.
Meanwhile, the state's population had moved westward, and in 1788 a State Convention voted to fix the capital within ten miles of Isaac Hunter's plantation in Wake County. A committee later purchased 1,000 acres of Joel Lane's plantation, and a plan for Raleigh was drawn, based on the then nation's capital of Philadelphia. Construction of a State House began on the town's central square in 1792. First occupied in 1794, the building served as the capitol until it burned in 1831. The cornerstone of the present State Capitol, constructed on the site of the former State House, was laid in 1833 and the building was completed in 1840.
The Capitol is the second building on this site. In 1792, Raleigh was established as North Carolina's permanent seat of government. A simple, two-story brick State House was built on Union Square between 1792 and 1796.
Between 1820 and 1824, the State House was enlarged by State Architect William Nichols. A third floor and eastern and western wings were added to the building, and a domed rotunda constructed at its center to house Antonio Canova's statue of President George Washington, acquired by the state in 1821. Sadly, when the State House burned in 1831, the statue of George Washington was damaged beyond repair.
The General Assembly of 1832-1833 ordered that a new Capitol be built as an enlarged version of the old State House--that is, a cross-shaped building featuring a central, domed rotunda. The Commissioners for Rebuilding the Capitol first employed William Nichols, Jr. to help prepare building plans. In August 1833, Nichols was replaced by the distinguished New York architectural firm of Ithiel Town and Alexander Jackson Davis. Its principals modified and greatly improved the earlier design, essentially giving the Capitol its present appearance and plan.
David Paton (1801-1882), an Edinburgh-born architect who had worked for noted Scottish architect William Playfair and English architect Sir John Sloan, was hired in September 1834 to supervise the Capitol's construction. Paton replaced Town and Davis as the Commissioners' architect in early 1835. Except for the exterior stone walls, which were largely in place when he arrived in Raleigh, the Capitol was completed entirely under Paton's watch. He made several modifications to Town and Davis' plans for the interior. He is responsible for the cantilevered or overhanging gallery on the second floor of the rotunda, the groined masonry vaulting of the first floor offices and corridor ceilings (making the first floor virtually fireproof), and the interior arrangements of the east and west wings.
Most of the architectural details--mouldings, ornamental plasterwork, and the honeysuckle crown atop the dome--were carefully patterned after features of ancient Greek temples. The exterior columns are Doric style and modeled after those of the Parthenon. The House of Representatives chamber follows the semi-circular plan of a Greek theater and its architectural ornament is in the Corinthian style of the Tower of Winds. The Senate chamber is decorated in the Ionic style of the Erectheum. The only nonclassical areas in the building are two third floor rooms and their vestibules, which were finished in the Gothic style.
The ornamental ironwork, chandeliers, hardware, and marble mantels of the Capitol came from Philadelphia, as did the men who created all the ornamental plasterwork. The desks and chairs were made by Raleigh cabinetmaker William Thompson.
In plan, the Capitol is a cross shape, centering on a domed rotunda where the wings join. It is 160 feet from north to south, 140 feet from east to west (including the porticoes), and stands 97-1/2 feet from the rotunda florr to the crown atop the dome. The exterior walls are built of gneiss, a form of granite. The stone was quarried in southeastern Raleigh and hauled to the site on the horse-drawn Experimental Railroad, North Carolina's first railway. The interior walls are of stone and brick. The massive, original wooden truss system still bears the weight of the roof.
Completed in 1840 at a total cost of $532,682.34, the Capitol cost more than three times the yearly general income of the state at that time.
The Capitol housed all of North Carolina's state government until 1888. The Supreme Court and State Library moved into a separate building in 1888, and the General Assembly moved into the State Legislative Building in 1963. Today the governor and lieutenant governor, and their immediate staff, occupy offices on the first floor of the Capitol.