The West Virginia Capitol Complex is an 18-acre historic district centered along Kanawha Boulevard East in Charleston, West Virginia. The complex dates to 1925 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. The obvious highlight of the complex is the State Capitol, of which this iteration was completed in phases from 1924 to 1932.
The history of the modern West Virginia State Capitol dates back to the fire of January 3, 1921 of the 1880s-era capitol that made a new facility necessary. It was generally agreed upon that plans for a new structure should come immediate, but be well developed and planned. In addition, the new capitol should be of quality but at a reasonable cost. At the request of then-governor John Jacob Cornwell, the state legislature appointed a commission to select both an architect and a location for a complex of buildings of “impressive architecture” in 1921. In the meantime, a temporary building built of wood was constructed, referred to as the “pasteboard” capitol building.
Although there were early talks for an architectural competition, Cass Gilbert was selected on July 23, 1921 after visiting the city and meeting with the commission. Accompanying him was his son, Cass Jr. Gilbert had earlier designed capitols for Minnessota and Arkansas.
A site for the new complex was chosen on December 20, 1921. Gilbert noted that his design was guided by Baths of Dioclitian and that it would remain his guiding design principle. On June 30, the commission met with Gilbert in New York and voted to approve the idea of a central building and two wings. Each building would be let under an individual contract, completed and accepted by the state before construction would begin on another in order to be fiscally responsible.
The site preparation for the capitol involved the purchase of 65 properties and the relocation of 32 residences. The houses, which were deemed architecturally significant, were ferried across the Kanawha River. On the design front, Gilbert was finalizing his plans in 1923, but in a session in June, one state official stated that he desired a skyscraper for a capitol building. In Gilbert’s sketch, he drew up a building similar to Louisiana’s recently completed capitol and wrote next to it: “Do they want this sort of thing?”
The first bid was opened for competitive bidding on December 21, 1923 for the four-story west wing. When the bids came in higher than expected, Gilbert reluctantly decided to abandon the idea of marble for the exterior. The next day, the commission awarded a contract to New York’s George A. Fuller Company, and Indiana limestone was chosen for the facing for all three structures. Ground was broken for the west wing on January 7, 1924 with a cornerstone being laid on May 1. The 300-foot by 60-foot wing was completed in April 14, 1925 at a cost of $1.2 million. It housed various state government offices.
The James Baird Company won the bid for the four-story east wing, with construction beginning in July 1926. The east wing was built of identical proportions and size as the west wing, and was finished in December 1927 at a cost of $1.4 million. The primary tenant was the Supreme Court, a chamber consisting of screens of Ionic columns in white Vermont marble on three walls.
After the wings were completed, attention was focused on the central building, attached to the wings by one-story connectors. The Fuller Company was awarded the contract for construction on March 31, 1930, and a cornerstone was laid on November 5, 1930 in a low-key celebration. Construction supplies was sourced from the Wheeling Steel Corporation, the Wheeling Structural Steel Company, the Wheeling Tile Company and the Wheeling Metal Manufacturing Company. Ironically, Wheeling was once Charleston’s capital competitor.
The interior designer was George P. Reinhard of New York, according to an August 1931 article in the West Virginia Review. Design work was assisted by Miss Mary Pratt, a former West Virginia resident. Interior granite came from Milford, Massachusetts, and interior Imperial Danby marble from Proctor, Vermont. The travertine floors and marble for the columns in the Senate chamber were sourced from Italy, and the columns for the House chamber were imported from France.
Some critics complained about the extravagant construction of the 558-foot by 120-foot central building, especially during the Great Depression. In spite of those worries, construction continued on. The crowning achievement was the dome, which Gilbert convinced critics that gold plating the dome would be “cost effective.” Originally, only the ribs and decorative trophies were gilded, and the background painted a blue color. The dome measured 292 feet high, which is about 4.5 feet taller than the United States Capitol. Installed atop the dome was a bronze staff upon which a golden eagle was placed. Inside, a Czechoslovakian crystal chandelier, 8 feet in diameter, was installed, suspended by a 54-foot chain. It consisted of more than 3,300 pieces of hand-cut crystal, weighing more than two tons. Metopes in the friezes of the rotunda, and in the Senate and House chambers, evoke symbols of West Virginia.
The central building of the capitol was finished on February 10, 1932 and dedicated on June 20, West Virginia’s 69th birthday. The structure was completed at a cost of $4.6 million, less than the $5 million originally projected. The total cost for the complex was $10 million.
Gilbert noted that the capitol complex was far from complete, adding that a sculpture should be installed in the pediments of the two main porticoes, and that mural decorations should embellish the rotunda, and the House and Senate chambers.
Gilbert died in 1934, and his son, Cass Jr., undertook the task of fine tuning the capitol complex. The dome, which was originally gold plated only on the ribs and decorative trophies, soon looked ragged as the gold leaf began to flake. Cass Jr. took on the task of analyzing the problem, and gold paint soon replaced the gilding. In 1987, new adhesion techniques were devised, and the entire dome was regilded in gold between 1988 and 1991.
In October 1945, the West Virginia Review announced that construction of a new state office building would begin once there were materials, reasonable prices and workers available – to be called State Office Building No. 3. But bids were not requested until November 1949 and the eight-story office building opened in 1952. The building was designed by Cass Gilbert Jr. to conform with the state capitol, and is faced with Indiana limestone above a granite base, with Virginia greenstone facing the window spandrels. The roof is finished with standing-seam metal painted green.
A terra-cotta sculpture, Spirit of West Virginia, is featured at the main entrance that faced the capitol. Surrounded by symbols of the state’s natural resources, it was designed by Paul Jennewein of New York, best known for his earlier work at Rockfeller Center.
The West Virginia State Office Building Nos. 5, 6 and 7 were designed by Zando, Martin and Milstead and were built between 1969 and 1971.
- State Office Building No. 5 is 11-stories tall.
- State Office Building No. 7 is 8-stories tall.
- State Office Building No. 6 is 2-stories tall and is a portico connector between No. 5 and No. 7.
Buildings No. 5 and No. 7 is steel framed and clad in precast concrete and limestone, and the connector features glazed walls. The Charleston Daily Mail noted that while a conference room could hold 2,000 “with no sweat” due to its modular wall partition system, its interior “from desk size to football field were very cold and in some places depressing.”
With the dedication of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. in 1971, many states desired similar facilities. For West Virginia, it was the Cultural Center with plans unveiled by Governor Arch Moore. It was to be a state “treasure house” with a theater, state library and great hall for exhibits, a place for archives and history, and a museum.
Designed by Silling Associates, the five-story, unadorned, nearly windowless box was built from 1973 to 1976 and is faced with Indiana limestone.
I have not yet covered the other structures of the Capitol Complex, of which there are several more – including the Governor’s Mansion. But this concludes the regular Mountain State Tours series – which included visits to Wheeling, Morgantown, Fairmont, Clarksburg, Elkins, Marlinton, Lewisburg, Hinton, Bluefield, Beckley, downtown Charleston and the Capitol Complex. More photographs of West Virginia will surely be added as the months progress – so stay tuned!