Mississippi’s Old Capitol Museum Tour

Part 1. The Architecture and History of the Old State Capitols

David Smitherman
11 min readJun 9, 2024

The Old Capitol Museum was completed in 1839, and served as the state capitol until 1903, when the current capitol building was completed. It was designed in a Greek Revival architectural style by the architect William Nichols, and features a limestone facade, Greek Revival portico, and a copper dome and domed cupola over the central Rotunda.

The Old Capitol Museum, west entrance and south facades.

William Nichols, 1780 to 1853, was born in England and emigrated to the United States in 1800, where he became noted for his Neoclassical-style designs, including the statehouses in North Carolina and Alabama. He was raised in Bath England where he learned his trade from his family of builders noted for their designs in English Palladian and Adam-style architecture.

The three story capitol building uses load bearing brick walls with a limestone facade forming the first floor base, and stucco over brick, scored to look like limestone on the upper two floors of the front and side walls. The back wall was left exposed, revealing the red brick walls of the primary structure.

The Old Capitol Museum, east and north facades.

The back wall in brick often indicates plans for future additions, but in this case the back wall faced the Pearl River swamp and was not considered an elevation that would be in view by the general public. Today that swamp has been filled, and the land used for a fair grounds, and general expansion of the city along the Pearl River.

The entrance portico is supported by a limestone arcade at the first floor entrances, and six Ionic columns, supporting a pediment above. The second level features a balcony above the arcade where the governor and state officials could make public announcements and speeches.

West portico with visitor and handicap entrances.

First Floor

The interior layout is symmetrical with an Entrance Hall leading into a three story central Rotunda, with passageways to what used to be a courtroom, and grand hallways leading to state offices.

First Floor Plan.

Rotunda

The Rotunda includes a visitor information desk, open space for special events, and in the center, a beautiful view of the dome above. There are four alcoves along the walls that include period lighting, that were originally designed to display sculptures of prominent historical figures. It is likely that any sculptures from the original construction were lost during the Civil War.

Rotunda, and Dome above.

Off the Rotunda on the first level is a Chancery Court used for exhibits, and grand hallways leading to offices under the House and Senate chambers at each end, used for museum space today including the old Governor’s office.

Chancery Court, and grand hallway.

Governor’s Office

The Governor’s Office is on the first level below the Senate Chamber, and has been restored with period furnishings to illustrate how it could have looked in the early 1800s. It includes a rebuilt fireplace, the only one left in the building that once included over thirty. The mantel is wood, and painted to resemble a black marble, which was a common decorative approach from that period.

Governor’s Office.

The fireplace highlights one of the challenges for restoration. During the life of the capitol from 1839 to 1902 the utilities evolved from wood burning fireplaces and lighting by candles, to coal burning stoves, gas heating and lighting, and finally electric lighting.

There are figures in the Governor’s Office, Senate Chamber, and Supreme Court Chamber sculpted to illustrate period dress and appearance, but do not represent any particular historical figures.

The Old Capitol and Historic Preservation

Also on the first floor is a room dedicated to the restoration of the Old Capitol and Historic Preservation in Jackson. It includes many details as to why the building was designed in the Greek Revival style, and the many construction and restoration challenges that evolved over the years. Structural problems with the museum led to its abandonment after state officials moved to the new capitol in 1903. Renovations led to its use as state offices in 1916, and then as a museum beginning in 1961. The beautiful restoration work that can be seen today was completed in 2009, after serious storm damage occurred during Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, and a month later Hurricane Rita.

Preservation models.

In all, three major restorations have been made to the capitol building. In 1916, Theodore C Link, the architect for the current 1903 capitol, restored the building for use as state offices after a hurricane in 1909 had destroyed the roof. His restoration included adding a steel frame to the interior to stabilize the exterior walls. In 1959, Overstreet Ware and Ware Architects restored the building for use as a museum; and then, in 2009, the architect Robert Parker Adams, restored the building following extensive damage from the hurricanes in 2005.

African American Labor

Before the Civil War about half the people in Mississippi were slaves. So, slave labor was used to help build the capitol, as was common for just about all construction during that time. We know from reports in other states that many were skilled craftsmen. Records are sketchy, but presented are examples in accounting notes where the State paid slave owners for use of their slaves to work on the capitol.

After the Civil War slave labor evolved into convict labor, where African Americans were often accused of petty crimes and then sentenced to labor camps. In this case the State collected fees from contracts for use of their prisoners. This 1916 photograph shows African American convict labor working on the capitol restoration. This practice has since been outlawed, but forms of this type of discrimination still exists.

Convict labor from 1916 restoration.

In this photograph you can see the white overseer on the right, and the black convicts dressed in striped uniforms and grouped between the windows. They may have been chained into groups of three to four, which was not uncommon during this era.

Second Floor

The Entrance Hall leading to the Rotunda also has two spiral staircases leading up to the second and third floors. The second floor is open to the third floor above and features a balcony where speeches were given looking out over the grounds to Capitol Street, a skylight above, and an entrance to the Rotunda.

Entrance Hall spiral staircases.
Entrance Hall balcony, skylight, and entrance to second floor Rotunda.

The second floor includes the main entrance to the state Supreme Court chamber off the rotunda, and entrances to the House and Senate Chambers at each end.

Second Floor Plan.

Supreme Court Chamber

The Supreme Court Chamber is in a semicircular extension to the building on the east side of the Rotunda. It provides seating for three judges, legal representatives, and public viewing.

Supreme Court Chamber.

House Chamber

The House Chamber provided seating for sixty Representatives initially, but that number grew to over a hundred by the late 1800s. Today the chamber uses theater type seating for about 150 to accommodate special events in place of the desks that were originally used in the chamber.

House Chamber.
House Chamber Gallery.

Senate Chamber

The Senate Chamber on the second level provides seating for twelve Senators in a circular layout where they can see and speak to each other directly. By 1870 there were actually thirty senators with desks in a semicircular arrangement in the display space on each side. It uses beautiful Corinthian columns to support the open gallery above.

Senate Chamber.
Senate Chamber Gallery.

Third Floor

The third floor provides public access to the State Library and the Galleries above the House and Senate chambers where the public can view and listen to their proceedings. There is no access to the Rotunda from this level, but the original construction may have been more open.

Third Floor Plan.

State Library

Above the Supreme Court Chamber on the third floor is the State Library which has been restored to its original layout. The semicircular room is flanked by six Doric columns that align with support columns through the Supreme Court Chamber on the second floor and the Chancery Court on the first floor.

State Library.

Today all of the library records are kept in a separate law library building.

Former State Capitols

The Mississippi Territory was formed in 1798, which included the present day states of Alabama and Mississippi. The seat of government was established in Natchez, which was located on the Mississippi River, and included access by way of the Natchez Trace, a Native American trail that wound its way up to Nashville Tennessee. You can read about the Natchez Trace in my stories on Natchez Discoveries, Part 1 and Part 2.

1798 Capitol in Natchez

The territorial capital in Natchez used the Texada Inn as its capitol building. The Texada was built in 1798 by Manuel Texada, and is noted as being the first brick building in Natchez. He and his family lived there, and ran a tavern, hotel, and dancing academy in the building.

The Texada, a former tavern and capitol building for Mississippi.

Today the Texada has been preserved, but is still privately owned and used as a private residence, so no public tours are available.

1817 Capitol in Washington

In 1817 Mississippi became a state, convening at the Methodist Meeting House in the city of Washington. A turn of the century photograph shows its appearance, but the building no longer stands.

The Methodist Meeting House and 1817 state capitol.

In the years that followed the legislature moved back to Natchez, then to Columbus, and finally settled on Jackson, a location that was on high ground with access to the Pearl River and close to the center of the state.

1822 Capitol in Jackson

Jackson’s first capitol was noted in this drawing published in the Clarion-Ledger, in 1951. The caption reads, Jackson’s First State Capitol. The first state capitol in Jackson was located at the present intersection of North President and Capitol streets. It was built in 1821 of brick. The sixth session of the Mississippi Legislature met for the first time in Jackson, December 23, 1822.

1839 Capitol in Jackson

In the late 1700s and early 1800s our new country was struggling to identify an architectural style representative of our new government. The Greek Revival style became popular because the governance in ancient Greece was viewed as a source of the democracy we had formed, and so its architecture seemed appropriate to adopt as the national style for our monumental government buildings.

The 1839 capitol, today known as the Old Capitol Museum featured in this story, began with the architect John Lawrence in 1833, who was replaced in 1836 by William Nichols. Lawrence had designed the building in a Gothic Revival architectural style that many in the state legislature did not like because it had a cathedral appearance rather than that of a stately government building. William Nichols had significant experience with other capitol building designs and took on the project, completing the work in three years in a Greek Revival architectural style.

The Old State Capitol in 1940 when used as state offices.

Civil War Capitols

By 1860, Mississippi had become the nation’s top cotton-producer with slaves accounting for about 55% of the population. When Abraham Lincoln took office in 1861, Mississippi held a secession vote in the Old Capital Building and became the second state to secede from the Union. In 1863 after the Battle of Vicksburg, the Old Capital Building was captured by Union troops, so it was abandoned by state officials. From 1863 to 1865, the Mississippi State legislature moved and convened in several other locations across the state, including the Lowndes County Courthouse, the Calhoun Institute near Macon, the Columbus Christian Church, and unidentified locations in Enterprise and Macon.

The Civil War era capitol buildings.

In 1865, after the Civil War had ended, the capitol building was reoccupied by the state government where it was utilized until the current capitol was completed in 1903.

1903 Capitol in Jackson

The 1903 capitol is known as the new capitol because it is still used for that purpose today, with both the House and Senate holding sessions there, and the Governor maintaining legislative offices and ceremonial offices for special events.

Mississippi State Capitol at completion in 1903.

It is a grand work of art and architecture, which you can read about in my stories on the Mississippi State Capitol Tour, Part 1 and Part 2.

Travel Notes

Below is a Google map showing the Old Capitol Museum grounds with visitor parking behind the building on the east side, and the visitor entrance on the front side of the building under the portico facing west. The grounds are known as the Capitol Green, which you can read about in Part 2, The Art and Architecture on the Capitol Green. Also, below is the author visiting the supreme court chambers, and noting that we all have gray hair and beards, which must have been a thing back then too.

Notes and References

Story and photographs by David Smitherman, with data collected from onsite inscriptions and brochures, Wikipedia, and Google Maps. Site visits were made in March 2024.

History of Capitol: https://www.legislature.ms.gov/about-the-capitol/history-of-the-capitol/

Meeting houses during the Civil War, https://hamiltonhistoricalrecords.com/2019/05/09/the-four-mississippi-state-legislature-buildings-during-the-civil-war/

Texada, https://hamiltonhistoricalrecords.com/2019/05/09/the-four-capitals-of-mississippi/#:~:text=The%20first%20capital%20of%20the,state%20was%20established%20in%20Jackson.

Methodist Meeting House, by Mississippi Department of Archives and History — Mississippi: A Pictorial History, 1798–1937, No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46828821

“Temples of Democracy” by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and William Seal, 1976.

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David Smitherman

Retired architect and space architect from NASA. Married with a growing family. Currently into travel, historical architecture, photography and genealogy.