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Surprises at the NC State Capitol

I can’t say exactly how many times I have passed the North Carolina State Capitol in the 15 years that we’ve lived in Raleigh. I would imagine more than 100. I remember a vague curiosity about visiting when my daughter was younger in the context of an educational visit. She was more interested in Playspace. And as time went by, the NC Museum of Natural Sciences became her favorite destination.

So when an out-of-town friend came to visit and wanted to check it out, I was delighted to join her. Not being completely sure of tour times, we stopped in to ask. What a surprise to be ushered through the metal detector and handed a map without a moment’s hesitation. Apparently the self-guided walking tours are free and available during business hours!

Brief History

The Capitol was completed in 1840 and replaced a simple two-story brick State House that was built in 1792. It housed all of state government until 1880 when the Supreme Court and State Library moved to a new building. The General Assembly moved to the State Legislative building in 1963. Currently, only the governor, lieutenant governor, and their staff members occupy the building.

Model of the NC State Capitol, circa 1880
Model of the NC State Capitol, circa 1880

From 1990 to 2000, the State Capitol was restored to it’s 1840-1865 appearance and most of the desks, ornamental plaster, ironwork and mantles are original. There is a beautiful rotunda right in the middle beneath the dome. The House of Representatives and Senate extend to the right and left wings of the building.

George Washington in the Rotunda

Upon entering, I was curious about the roman inspired sculpture in the middle of the rotunda and gasped when discovering it was George Washington! I would imagine very few images exist of George with a shapely, muscular leg extended in a such dramatic pose. As it turns out, North Carolina commissioned an Italian artist to created the sculpture to honor him in 1816. Since Antonio Canova had never met Washington, they sent a marble bust to help. So, the face does look remarkably familiar but Canova depicted the rest of him as a Roman general in tight fitting armor and a tunic. Now that’s what I call artistic license!

George Washington as Roman General. Antonio Canova, 1816.
George Washington Statue by Antonio Canova, 1816.

State Library Room

Another part of our self-guided tour that made me gasp was entering the quaint library on the third floor. Furnished in late 1800’s decor, the room features wooden tables, a coal stove, feather pens, and packages tied with string. A narrow staircase leads to a balcony that wraps around the room and offers ornate bookshelves filled with a sea of period reference and law books. It was so dreamy, I could hardly tear myself away!

NC State Library Room, 1856.
NC State Library Room, 1856.

Chambers of the House & Senate

The House and Senate chambers were stunning, of course, and I marveled at the massive, towering wooden doors. The view from the third floor public galleries were impressive. Curiously, the galleries were narrow for no other reason than they were a mere afterthought by the architect.

House of Representatives Public Galleries, 3rd Floor
House of Representatives Public Galleries, 3rd Floor

West Hall Committee Room

The mystery of the visible damage to the West Staircase was intriguing. Was it from delivering firewood in wheelbarrows to the upper rooms? Or from hauling scandalous whiskey barrels to the Committee Room that was described as containing “a profusion of bottles and cigars” where votes were sold for drinks? The world may never know!

Committee Room: Profusion of Bottles and Cigars?
Committee Room: Profusion of Whiskey and Cigars?

Overall, our visit was a nice stop along our sightseeing adventure! The history was fascinating, the restoration quite impressive, and the staff and security members were so very welcoming. Two thumbs up to the NC State Capitol building!

View more photos of our visit on my NC State Capitol Flickr Album.

Interested in visiting? As of this writing, self-guided tours are available Monday-Friday during the business hours of 9 am to 5 pm. (Closed on major holidays.) Guided tours are available on Saturdays at 11 am and 2 pm. Admission is free. Donations are welcomed.

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