West Virginia State Capitol Complex Walking Tour

West Virginia State Capitol

Historic Sites, Monuments, Landmarks, and Public Art ()

Overview Listen

The West Virginia State Capital was originally Wheeling, WV, and became Charleston, WV, after a shift in political power during Reconstruction. The capital moved on a steamboat along the Ohio and the Kanawha River three times as the geographic transition back to Wheeling occurred once more before the permanent establishment in Charleston. The original capitol building in Charleston was razed to make way for a more prominent structure once West Virginian’s voted for Charleston as their choice for the state’s capital. The capitol in Downtown Charleston caught fire in 1921, and was quickly replaced by a Pasteboard Capitol while architect Cass Gilbert’s designs for a capitol complex were being brought to life along the Kanawha River. Cass Gilbert is most recognized for designing the Woolworth Building in New York, the George Washington Bridge, the Minnesota State Capitol, and the U.S. Supreme Court Building. The first three structures of the West Virginia State Capitol Complex were constructed from 1924 to 1932. Today the West Virginia Capitol Complex consists of four structures: the west wing, the east wing, the main building, and the Culture Center which was established in 1976.


Photo Linsly Institute Building, the capitol from 1863-1870.
Photo A depiction of the first Charleston capitol, 1870-1875.
Photo West Virginia's Victorian-era capitol, 1885-1921.
Photo The Downtown Charleston Capitol caught fire on January 3rd, 1921.
Photo Construction of the West Wing- May 1924.
Photo The two wings completed without the main building- March 1930.
Photo Construction of the Supreme Court Chamber.
Photo Construction of the dome- March 1931.
Photo Interior construction of the dome- April 1931.
Photo Cass Gilbert, the architect of the WV State Capitol.
Photo The Pasteboard Capitol: March 1921 to March 1927.
Photo The Capitol Annex where important documents were stored and saved from the fires of 1921 and 1927.
Photo The dome of the capitol building.
Photo The capitol rotunda.

Backstory Listen

When West Virginia officially became a state in 1863, the capitol building was established at the Linsly Institute in Wheeling, WV. However, a shift in political power in the new state occurred in the late 1860s, and the capital was moved to Charleston. The Radical Republicans that had control of West Virginia’s legislature were outvoted and replaced by the Democratic Party after the establishment of the Flick Amendment that restored Confederate voting rights. Many of these Confederates were democratic and populated the southern and central portions of the state. Before the decision to move the capital to a more centralized location was made, Democrats had already taken hold of the local government in Charleston, WV. After power was achieved on the state level, the Democratic Party decided to transport the capital of West Virginia from Wheeling, a Republican controlled area, to Charleston.

On January 29th, 1869, both Democrats and Republicans in Charleston convinced the city council to offer the state $50,000 to go towards the improvement of public buildings so that Charleston could become the capital. Local Charleston officials were sent to Wheeling as lobbyists to propose the plan and to gain support for the removal of the capital. The efforts were successful, and the act to move the state capital was passed on February 26th, 1869 with a 29 to 23 victory in the House of Delegates and a 17 to 4 victory in the Senate.

The governor of West Virginia, William E. Stevenson, boarded the steamboat “Mountain Boy” along with other state officials and necessary documents and records on March 28th, 1870. The “Mountain Boy” was known as the floating capitol as it traveled down the Ohio River and up the Kanawha, and was the primary source of moving the capital from Wheeling to Charleston. The boat temporarily stopped in Governor Stevenson’s hometown of Parkersburg, and then continued to its destination. Mountain Boy arrived in Charleston on March 30th, and was welcomed by a local U.S. artillery unit. Mayor J. W. Wingfield delivered an address to a large crowd in front of Laidley’s Drug Store.

The act that was passed in February stated that Charleston would become West Virginia’s capital on April 1st, 1870. However, upon Mountain Boy’s arrival, the new capitol building was not complete; the capitol building was not completed until December 20th, 1870. While the three story hand quarried stone building was being constructed, the Bank of the West and the Merchants Bank provided office space for executive officers while Saint John’s Episcopal Church was temporarily the state library. When the capitol was finally complete, it stood on land made available by Alex T. Laidley and J. A. Lewis, located where the Kanawha Valley Bank and the Diamond Department Store now stands.

Charleston saw dark times in the early 1870s. Although being the West Virginia State Capital brought expansion and growth, a fire in 1873 destroyed most of the local structures. John P. Hale, who had influence in constructing the state capitol, along with a popular local hotel, declared bankruptcy after the fire and moved out of state to rebuild himself. In 1875, Senator Jonathan M. Bennett proposed a bill in the state legislature for the temporary removal of the capital in Charleston, and to be moved back to Wheeling. The vote ended in favor of removal with a 13 to 11 victory in the Senate, and a 38 to 20 victory in the House of Delegates. The capital of West Virginia was transported back to Wheeling aboard the Emma Graham on May 21st, 1875. However, since the decision to remove the capital in March, leaders of Charleston worked to prove that the action of legislature was unconstitutional. The case went all the way to the state Supreme Court, which ruled the decision an unqualified victory for Wheeling.

In February of 1877, the state legislature announced that the permanent location of the state capital would be decided by the people; the location would either be Clarksburg, Martinsburg, or Charleston, and the voting would take place on August 7th the same year. Charleston officials rallied to gain votes from the southern part of the state by collaborating with Booker T. Washington to assure the black vote, and even went so far as to tour with John Robinson’s circus for a week. When the ballots were cast, Charleston won by a landslide, and Governor Henry M. Mathews announced that Charleston would once again be the West Virginia State Capital on May 3rd, 1885. The Belle Prince steamboat towed the Nick Crawley barge, which was carrying state property and documents, while the steamboat Chesapeake carried the state officials along with the governor.

The old capitol building was razed to make way for a new structure in the block surrounded by Capitol, Lee, Dickinson, and Washington Streets. The new three story West Virginia State Capitol Building cost $389,923, and contained 85 rooms along with a 194-foot-tall clock tower. In 1902, the Capitol Annex was constructed between Hale and Dickinson Streets, and housed various government agencies.  On January 3rd, 1921, the West Virginia State Capitol caught fire; Governor John J. Cornwell said that the guns and ammunition intercepted during the Mine Wars and stored in the attic of the capitol were the cause of the fire. After the fire, the Governor had a temporary office in the state armory while other agencies worked out of the Red Cross Shop, the Elks Club, the Cohen Building, the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Scottish Rite Cathedral, and the Virginia Land Bank Building. In 1921, the state legislature held its session in the local YMCA. A Pasteboard Capitol was constructed and completed in under two months after the fire, and was located on the property across the street from the old capitol. The Pasteboard Capitol also caught fire and was destroyed on March 2nd, 1927; the property is now home to the Daniel Boone Hotel building. The Capitol Annex became the Kanawha County Public Library after the dedication of the new capitol, however the dome of the building caught fire in 1966; the building was demolished to make way for Huntington Square.

Plans were made to build a new capitol under Governor Ephraim F. Morgan and the Capitol Building Commission, who hired the internationally known architect, Cass Gilbert. The west wing of the new capitol building was completed on April 24th, 1925, while the east wing was completed on December 12th, 1927. The central portion of the current capitol was dedicated on June 20th, 1932, on West Virginia’s 69th birthday. Gilbert’s original design for the capitol complex showed a dome and rotunda in the main structure. The dome was to be gilded despite hesitation from state officials who stated that the project would be too expensive.

"If we had built the dome of stone, as in the Arkansas Capitol," he said, "or of marble, as in the Minnesota Capitol or the Rhode Island Capitol, it would have cost five or ten times as much money. In other words, the bell of the dome of this dimension in marble might easily have cost $500,000, whereas the comparatively modest expense for covering it with newly developed material of lead coated with copper and using gilding, has reduced the cost to a minimum... if the bell of the dome were of limestone it would be, in this climate, susceptible to expansion and contraction and the joints would have to be constantly repaired in order to preserve it." – Cass Gilbert1

The dome peaks at 292 feet, which makes the capitol the tallest building in West Virginia, and four and a half feet taller than the nation’s capitol. The capitol’s marble rotunda is adorned with symbols representing heritage of the Mountain State. Costing nearly ten million dollars, the building itself is 535,000 square feet with 333 rooms and chambers. Two-thirds of the interior is comprised of various types of marble while the exterior is fashioned from Indiana Limestone.   

1900 Kanawha Blvd. E.
Charleston, WV 25305

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Monday - Friday 9am - 3:30pm;
Saturday 1pm - 3:30pm

1. Building the Capitol: Part 3. Accessed February 09, 2017. http://www.legis.state.wv.us/educational/capitol_history/pg16-20.cfm.

State Capitol. West Virginia Division of Culture and History. Accessed February 08, 2017. http://www.wvculture.org/agency/capitol.html.

Cohen, Stan "Capitols of West Virginia." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 19 May 2016. Web. 09 February 2017.

Damron, Bob "The Capitol." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 19 May 2016. Web. 09 February 2017.

Peyton, Billy Joe. Then & Now: Charleston. Charleston, SC. Arcadia Publishing, 2010.

Charleston Century Chronicle.

Charleston: A Capital Experience. Atlanta, Georgia. Riverbend Books, 2000.

Rice, Otis K.. Charleston and the Kanawha Valley. Windsor Publications, Inc, 1981.

Morgan, John G.. Charleston 175. Charleston, WV. The Charleston Gazette, 1970.

Laidley, W. S.. History of Charleston and Kanawha County West Virginia and Representative Citizens. Chicago, IL. Richmond-Arnold Publishing Co..

Rice, Otis K.. Brown, Stephen W.. West Virginia: A History. Lexington, KY. The University Press of Kentucky, 1985.

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