North Carolina State Capitol Tour

Part 1: The Architecture

David Smitherman
8 min readDec 19, 2023

Raleigh North Carolina is near the center of the state in the midst of rolling countryside, with both farms and woodlands. It borders the Atlantic Ocean with a coastal plain to the east, and gradually rises with rolling hills to the Appalachian Mountains, and includes Mount Mitchell, the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi River.

The State Capitol was built from 1833 to 1840, in Raleigh, near the center of town on Union Square. It was designed in a Greek Revival architectural style by a team of architects that included William Nichols Sr., William Nichols Jr., Ithiel Town, Alexander Jackson Davis, and David Paton. The first capitol was built on this site in 1796, but burned in 1831.

North Carolina State Capitol, west entrance.

William Nichols Sr., 1780 to 1853, was born in Bath England, to a family of builders where he learned his profession. He emigrated to North Carolina, and became the state architect in North Carolina, and later in Alabama and then Mississippi, having roles in all three state houses. He was noted for his Neoclassical architectural style with numerous projects across all three states. In later years, his son, William Nichols Jr., became part of the firm and contributed to the work.

Ithiel Town, 1784 to 1844, was born in Thompson Connecticut, and studied with Asher Benjamin, a noted architect and author on architectural design. Town became a noted architect for his designs using the Federal, Greek Revival, and Gothic Revival architectural styles. His work as an architect and civil engineer earned him an honorary degree from Yale University. He partnered with Alexander Davis and designed the early state capitols in Connecticut and Indiana, the North Carolina State Capitol, and numerous bridges and civil works projects.

Alexander Jackson Davis, 1803 to 1892, was born in New York City, and studied at the American Academy of Fine Arts, the New York Drawing Association, and the National Academy of Design. He was noted for his Classical, and Gothic Revival architectural styles, and with Ithiel Town, consulted on the capitol designs for Indiana, North Carolina, and Illinois.

David Paton, 1801 to 1882, was born in Edinburgh Scotland, and studied at Edinburgh University, with his father John Paton, a builder, and some self study in Paris France as evidenced by early drawings. After the death of his wife, he moved to New York City and worked for Town and Davis, and was sent to North Carolina to oversee the work on the state capitol construction. There, his skills with stone construction from Scotland were applied to the work, especially in the interior rotunda supporting the dome, stairs, and galleries.

North Carolina State Capitol, south entrance, and east visitors entrance.

Construction included craftsmen from Scotland, Philadelphia, and the surrounding areas. Local enslaved labor was used too, hired out by contract to the state, which allowed their owners to collect their wages. Records show about 90 slaves were on the payroll along with other laborers, likely whites. It appears they were skilled, working as stonemasons, brick makers, quarrymen, carpenters, plaster workers, and general laborers. They may have worked together with white workers, the difference being that the white men received pay, and the enslaved blacks’ pay went to their enslavers. In all, from 1833 to 1865, over 130 enslaved African Americans are known to have worked and maintained the capitol, a common practice, especially in the South, prior to the Civil War.

After the Civil War, from 1868 to 1898, 25 African Americans served as state senators and helped enact laws supporting education, charitable institutions, and railroads. But when Reconstruction collapsed in 1877, and Federal troops left the South, white supremacy grew and new laws and violence suppressed their vote. By 1900 blacks were outlawed from the General Assembly or voting in any elections. Little changed until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

Former State Houses in North Carolina

Tryon Palace, located in Newbern North Carolina, was named after British Governor William Tryon, 1729 to 1788, and was the last administrative headquarters of the British Governors of the North Carolina Colony. It was taken during the Revolutionary War and became the first headquarters for the new state government. In 1798, the palace burned but was later rebuilt in keeping with the original Georgian architectural style by John Hawks.

Drawing of Tryon Palace, by architect John Hawks, 1767.

John Hawks, 1731 to 1790, was born in England, and moved to New Bern where he set up a practice designing many notable buildings in the Georgian architectural style.

The first official State House was built in 1796, in a Federal architectural style, using red brick with a tall domed cupola. In 1824, the state architect, William Nichols Sr., completed upgrades to the building with a third floor, major additions to the facade, and a large domed rotunda, but unfortunately it burned in 1831. Ironically, the fire was caused by a boiling pot of solder, in use while workers were installing a lead panel roof, intended to help provide additional fireproofing for the building.

Paintings of the First State House, before and after the upgrades, by architect William Nichols.

On display is a beautifully crafted model of the capitol building by Casper Parker, 1990, showing the buildings overall simplistic classical design. It is apparent that Nichols had an input into the design as it is similar in appearance to the first capitol that he had reworked before the fire.

Model of the North Carolina State Capitol, by Casper R. Parker, 1990.

The original design included all state government offices until 1888, when the Supreme Court and State Library moved into a separate building, and in 1963 with the General Assembly moving to the State Legislative Building. Today the Capitol includes the Governor’s office, some staff offices, and museum space.

First and Second floor plans.

The building is symmetrical with the main entrances facing east and west on Union Square near the center of downtown Raleigh. The interior layout on three floor levels includes:

  1. First floor Rotunda
  2. Governor’s Offices
  3. Entrance Vestibule
  4. Stair to second level
  5. House of Representatives Chamber
  6. Senate Chamber
  7. Stair to third level
  8. State Geologist’s Office
  9. State Library
  10. House and Senate Galleries
Third floor plan, and a cross-section through the House Chamber, Rotunda, and Senate Chamber.

The Rotunda and Dome are at the center of the building with entrance vestibules from the east and west, and corridors leading out to the north and south. The first floor includes a sculpture of George Washington, and the circular walls in cut stone include four alcoves on the first and second levels for additional sculptures.

The Rotunda featuring a sculpture of George Washington, and the dome.

The Entrance Vestibule with visitor information and security, includes displays of the 13th 14th 15th and 19th Amendments to the United States Constitution. These Amendments are important because they abolished slavery, granted citizenship to native born of any race, granted voting rights regardless of race, and granted voting rights to women.

Visitors entrance and Governor’s offices.

The Governor’s Offices are on the first floor, where one of the rooms has been configured with period furnishings, and the remaining rooms are used by the Governor and his staff.

On the second floor is the House of Representatives Chamber, also known as the House of Commons, and includes seating for 120 representatives plus a visitors gallery above.

House of Representatives’ Chamber.

Also on the second floor is the Senate Chamber, with seating for 50 senators, and a visitors’ gallery above.

Senate Chamber.

The solid stone cantilevered stairs, known as Pen-Check Stairs, were likely designed and constructed by the architect David Paton, who was overseeing the work during most of its interior construction. The ceiling over the third floor stair includes a beautiful elliptical skylight, and its’ passageways lead to the House and Senate Galleries.

Cantilevered stone stairs and sky-lit stair galleries.

The State Geologist’s Office started in 1852, with a mission to survey the state and determine the types of mining industries the state could support. The interior was designed with glass cabinet doors for displays of the geological finds across the state. Its design, by the architect David Paton, is in a Gothic Revival style. The State Library was reconstructed in a similar appearance.

The State Geologist’s Office and the State Library.

The State Library lost most of the 1200 volumes of books and papers in the 1831 fire, but fortunately, some important documents had been checked out and later returned. Over the years, book donations began to restock the library, and it was opened for public use.

This story continues with “Part 2: The Sculpture”, and includes the sculptures on display inside the capitol and on the capitol grounds.

Travel Notes

This journey was made from Boston Massachusetts to Fairfax Virginia, Richmond, and finally the North Carolina State Capitol. In Fairfax I was doing genealogy research at their regional library, and in Richmond I toured the Virginia State Capitol, both of which might become stories for another day.

The author, traveling.

On my route I ran across an old friend at the Starbucks in Fredericksburg Virginia. It was crazy early, so neither of us were very talkative.

Notes and References

Story and photographs are by David Smitherman, with data collected from onsite inscriptions, brochures, Wikipedia, and Google Maps.

Historic images and data on the first State Houses are from the State’s website at

Site visits were made on December 6, 2020, and August 29, 2022.



David Smitherman

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