Connecticut's Old State HouseFacebook Twitter Instagram YouTube
 
 
 
 

Architecture

Underscore


Connecticut's Old State House is currently under the direction of the Connecticut General Assembly. The building underwent a four year restoration and reopened on May 11, 1996, the two hundredth anniversary. It now reflects three architectural periods, Federal, Victorian, and Colonial Revival. The exterior building and the Senate have been restored to its original Federal appearance, while the Representative's chamber reflects Victorian and the halls and courtroom are Colonial Revival.

Hartford, in the 1790s, was a scene of commercial and social growth. Following the post-Revolution depression, Connecticut became stable and prosperous throughout the 1790's. Many residents of Hartford saw improvements in their financial and social standings. Capital investments in commerce and trade were encountering success. The influence of the prominent Connecticut families with either civilian or military backgrounds and the pride of the citizens in winning the American Revolution were the settings for the construction of a new State House.

Charles Bulfinch, Architect

The noted architect, Charles Bulfinch of Boston, is credited with designing the Hartford State House. It was his first public building design.

Bullfinch

After his return to Boston from a trip to England, Bulfinch spent his time in leisure and pursued "no business". By 1793, he began to focus his attention on architecture.

Connecticut's Old State House is, in appearance, remarkably similar to the Liverpool, England Town Hall, built in the mid-eighteenth century. The designs of the arcade on the ground floor and the east portico that so closely resemble those of Connecticut's Old State House support the evidence that Charles Bulfinch was the architect of Connecticut's Old State House.

There is little surviving evidence that Bulfinch was the architect. A letter to Oliver Wolcott, Jr. from John Trumbull dated September 30, 1792 states "A new State House is to be built here next year upon a design of Mr. Bulfinch, which I think is worth executing in the best materials". The reference by Trumbull is the only documentation giving credit to Bulfinch.

Inference of Bulfinch's involvement can be found in other documents, however. One is a voucher from John Chester, chairman of the building committee, in September 1792 for "Journey and expenses to Boston for a plan of said State House, $31.60". Another voucher was for a trip to Boston by John Leffingwell in July 1793, the master builder named to the project, on state house business presumably to talk with Bulfinch about some of the details. There are also expense accounts for Asher Benjamin, a disciple of Bulfinch, to work on the stone spiral staircase. A report of the building committee for May 16, 1793 states:

"Your Honors Committee appointed at your session in May last, to Build a State House in said Hartford, beg leave respectfully to represent your Honors, that they have procured from an able artist an elegant plan or model for a State House, well calculated for the accommodation of your Honors and for the Judicial department, with suitable rooms for Committees & offices for the Treasurer and Comptroller."

We can determine that Charles Bulfinch designed the state house from the evidence. The name of Bulfinch in the letter from Trumbull, the trips to Boston by Chester and Leffingwell and the description of the rooms planned from an able artist all lead to Charles Bulfinch. However, it is the innovative features of Bulfinch designs that are the most compelling reasons to credit him as the designer.

State House, Boston

Boston State House

Some of the outstanding features of the work of Bulfinch include central projections and arches. These are evident not only in Connecticut's Old State House but in the State Houses in Boston, Massachusetts (1997) , Augusta, Maine (1832), and in the east front of the Capital in Washington, D.C. (1827).

Financing Connecticut's Old State House

Connecticut's Old State House building committee had to procure financing. A subscription list was begun with donations. Jeremiah Wadsworth made the largest donation of $500. Thomas Seymour, Mayor of Hartford donated $150. Other donations came from three of the building committee members, John Trumbull, John Caldwell and John Morgan. There were fifty-one donors who gave a total of $3,600. The city gave $3,500 and the county gave $1,500. With the matching donation from the state, the total came to only $13,600, not nearly enough money to build a new State House.

The Building Committee petitioned the General Assembly in May 1793 for permission to hold a lottery as a means of raising funds. Connecticut had had success raising money through lotteries for various projects, such as repairing bridges and roads. The people looked at a lottery as a type of tax but with the added adventure of winning a prize. The Assembly agreed and the Building Committee managed Connecticut's Old State House Lottery. The lottery tickets sold for $5.00 each and if 26,667 tickets sold, an additional $16,666.87 would be added to the building fund. The prizes ranged from $10.00 to $8,000 with the odds for the ticket purchasers 1 in 3. The first tickets were to be drawn when three-fourths of the tickets had been purchased, which did not happen until 1795. The lottery turned out to be a failure because not all of the tickets were sold.

Jeremiah Halsey of Preston and Andrew Ward of Guilford presented a proposal to the Assembly. They asked for the proceeds from the lottery and a strip of land between New York and Pennsylvania that belonged to Connecticut, known as the Gore. In return, they would complete the State House within two years. Halsey and Ward established The Connecticut Gore Company and sold its shares to finance the building.

Although no minutes of the Building Committee have survived and even with the financial complications, work had already begun on the building. John Leffingwell had charge of the construction and hired workers. As early as September 1792, workers had already begun to quarry stone in Portland. The foundation was dug in 1793 and, in July, the cellar walls were bricked.

Neoclassicism and Federal Architecture

A new style of architecture, neoclassical, had developed in Europe during the second half of the eighteenth century. It was rooted in the classical architecture of Greece and Rome. The neoclassical movement in America was an extension of neoclassicism in Europe. In the United States, the Revolution caused a desire for national cultural identity in architecture. New characteristics developed in American neoclassicism were not found in Greek and Roman architecture.

Thomas Jefferson enjoyed architecture and had a role in the popularization of European neoclassicism. Through ancient and modern architectural writings and from his observations in Europe, Jefferson created an American architectural style.

Between 1780 and 1820, the American neoclassical movement became known as Federal style. It was based specifically on the Neoclassicism of English Georgian architecture and developed from late colonial architecture. The delicate and refined designs developed from new concepts of proportion and scale using America's own method of ornamentation. The classic arches, the balance of the windows, and symmetry are characteristics of the Federal era. Charles Bulfinch was one of the premier architects in the new Federal architecture.

The Building

The first story was constructed from Portland, Connecticut brownstone and was built twenty feet high. The central portions of both the east side and the west side are projected. The second and third stories were brick, patterned in Flemish bond. The cornice was made of wood. All of the materials used in building the state house came from the United States rather than being imported from Europe.

ExteriorThe exterior of the building has been restored to its original appearance in 1796. The windows on the first floor are the same size as those on the second, but they have arches incised into the brownstone above them. There are twenty-four panes of glass in each of the first and second floor windows, twelve panes per sash. The glass was purchased from the first glass works manufacturer in Albany, New York. The windows on the third floor are half the size of those on the first and second floors. The effect created with the smaller third floor windows is a feeling of upward movement.


The change from large stone blocks to smaller brick blocks to the wood cornice adds to the sense of upward movement. The change in color from the darker brownstone to the lighter brick and wood also adds to the effect. The upward movement effect gives the building a feeling of magnificence.

cuppola

The original building had neither balustrade or cupola. The balustrade was added in the early 1800's for the protection of firemen who might have to fight fires on the roof either for the State House or for surrounding buildings. The cupola was constructed in 1827 complete with bell and John Stanwood's statue of Justice.

The principal entrance to the State House was from the east. There was, and is, a center porch made of brownstone with three open arches, the middle arch taller and wider than the other two. A flight of steps leads to the entrance. The stairs are reminiscent of steps leading up to a temple in classical architecture. In 1796, the only way to secure the building would have been iron gates fastened between the arches.

All of the first story windows are encased in arches that are capped by fan-shaped brownstone blocks. Brownstone lintels cap the second and third story windows. There is a double brownstone string course separating the first from the second story. A single brownstone string course above the second story windows separates the second story from the third.

The second story portico is the height of the second and third stories. There are three Doric columns on the southeast and northeast corners, with two more columns evenly spaced across the front. Two columns adjacent to the wall support the back of the portico. The entablature consists of triglyphs with a pediment capping the portico. There are evenly spaced dentils below the slopes of the pediment.

InteriorThe west side of the building faces Main Street. The central portion is projected without the portico. As on the east side, the first story has three central arches with the middle arch being slightly taller and wider. 1796, there was a stone spiral staircase behind the northern arch leading to the second and third floors. The second floor central portion was enclosed as an office for the Secretary of State.

Asher Benjamin designed the spiral staircase. He wrote in "The Builder's Guide", "In the year 1795. I made the drawings and superintended the erection of a circular staircase in the State House of Hartford, Connecticut, which, I believe, was the first circular rail that was ever made in New England. This rail was glued up around a cylinder, in pieces of about one-eighth of an inch thick" (40). The spiral staircase was freestanding without support, showing a great expertise in construction. It was thought to be an architectural masterpiece.

The north and south sides of the building are identical. Both had five windows on each of the three stories matching those on the east and west sides.

Central Hall

StaircaseThe interior of the State House has a center hall running east to west with a north and a south wing on the first and second floors. The original first floor hall was open and extended from east to west, with the three arches at each end, forming an open arcade. The floor, originally, was wood. A bill from Jeremiah Halsey states that a two-inch plank floor was laid on top. The walls were exposed brick. Iron gates between the arches keeping out "unwanted visitors, vermin and the elements" enclosed the hall. The iron gates were the only enclosure.

The hall was used as a gathering and waiting area for people visiting the offices of the treasurer and comptroller. People awaiting trial as defendants, attorneys, witnesses and observers would also have waited there.

Executive Offices

The offices of the comptroller and the treasurer were divided into four rooms on the south side of the open arcade. The treasurer's rooms were on the west end and those of the comptroller on the east. Each set of offices had an inner room and one that was accessible from the hall. The walls were probably plastered and whitewashed.

The treasurer's rooms were originally fitted with "bolts, bars and other necessaries to secure the public treasure and archives of this state". The northernmost office had a fireplace that shared the chimney of the Council Chamber above. The fireplace in the office of the comptroller was "an open fireplace and mantle, simple and good".

The original furnishings would be suited for the functions of the treasurer and a clerical worker. There would have been a storage cabinet for the documents, files, and books of the Assembly. In 1799, the State House custodian, Leonard Kennedy, was paid $20.60 for a case and chests for public papers.

Comptroller's RoomThe rooms of the comptroller would have been similarly furnished with the same consideration of security and storage of documents. The records the treasurer stored were the comptroller's vouchers for salaries, tax abatements, court costs, receipts for other accounts and ledgers. The treasurer also had the responsibility of storing records to and directives from the General Assembly. Most of these records had been duplicated for both offices.

The governor did not occupy an office in the State House until 1820 when the southeast corner room, the inner office of the Comptroller, was set up for his use. One reason the governor did not have an office when the building first opened may have been due to poor planning.

Both the treasurer and the comptroller's offices had folding interior shutters that were 102 inches long. The shutters could be closed against the sun or cold and they could be locked when the building was not in use.

Courtroom

ChandelierThe courtroom occupied the north wing of the first floor. It was forty-five feet in diameter and had Doric columns ten feet from the wall. The columns supported the floor of the representative's chamber above.

There is little documentation for the original appearance of the courtroom. The only description found was, "The judge presided from a semi-circular dais set against the north wall. In the northeast corner was a narrow stairway leading to a retiring room in the basement for the jury." There is no additional evidence to indicate there was a stairway or a jury room.

Upper Hall

The second floor hall was forty-five feet by twenty feet and twenty feet high. The walls were exposed brick. The three windows at the east end were exceptionally high, running from the floor to very near the ceiling, with the middle window taller. At the west end were two doors that led to the secretary of the state's office. The spiral staircase ran through the room at the north end.

House of Representatives

The representatives' chamber was in the north wing of the second floor above the courtroom. At the time of construction, there was an old English tradition of placing the Lower House and court on one side of the building and the offices and the senate chamber on the other.

House of RepresentativesThe representatives' chamber is a fine example of eighteenth century architecture. The room is the same width as the courtroom below but the height of thirty feet encompasses both the second and third floor.

Most of the woodwork has been preserved in its original form. Paint analysis indicates that the walls were white and the woodwork blue. "Ionic pilasters are between each window, whose entablature and balustrade reach to the bottom of the attic [third floor] windows". There are twenty pilasters that are flat and fluted. They increase in width from the top to the bottom. The pilasters rest on bases that have a raised molding, square with the corners removed.

The entablature, the area above the columns, is made up of architrave, frieze and cornice. The architrave, the area immediately above the column, in the representative's chamber is plain. The frieze, the middle section, has a molded design of alternating lengths. The cornice, the uppermost part of the entablature, has a group of small, block shaped ornamentation, called dentils. There are two scroll-shaped brackets above each pilaster.

Above the cornice is a short railing of molded trim with the same raised molding design as the pilaster bases. This railing becomes the railing of the gallery on the south side of the chamber. There is a high wainscoting around the walls.

There are thirteen windows, four on the east, five on the north, and four on the west. The interior shutters are recessed in the window casings. Above the second floor windows are the third floor windows that are half the size.

In 1878, the state government moved to its new capitol by Bushnell Park. The Old State House then became Hartford's City Hall and the city government changed the interior of the building. The representative's chamber was given a Victorian appearance for its use as City Council Chamber. Heavy velvet drapes were installed above the mayor's platform. The ceiling and walls were stenciled and a carpet covered the floor.

Senate Chamber

The Senate Chamber is the south wing of the second floor. The interior of the chamber has been restored to its original appearance. It was called one of the ten most beautiful rooms in the country by a colleague of Newton C. Brainard, the author of "Connecticut's Old State House of 1796". The room emits a feeling of power, as well as beauty.

Senate ChamberThe room is forty-five feet by forty-three feet and, like the representatives chamber, has a ceiling thirty feet high reaching through the third story. There are four windows on the east side of the room, four on the west and five on the south. Above these are windows on the third floor that are half the size. Separating the upper and lower windows is a balustrade with dentils that was opposite the exterior string course. Interior folding window shutters are recessed in the window casings. There is a raised molding design on the side of the shutter that opens out to the street.

The walls were originally plaster of Paris. The top two-thirds of the walls were painted a brilliant yellow, called spruce yellow. The lower third was painted a cream color. Separating the two sections of wall is a cream colored wainscoting.

Fourteen rounded, fluted pilasters were spaced evenly between the windows on the east, west and south walls. The pilasters rest on bases with raised molding. The pilasters have unadorned capitals. Instead, there is a leaf similar to a tobacco leaf placed above the bell-shaped capital section. The architrave and the frieze are plain. Dentils complete the cornice. Above the entablature and below the third floor windows is a false balustrade. The ornamentation adds to the sense of power that is emitted from the appearance of the chamber.

The floors were exposed wide white pine panels. Two fireplaces on the northern wall had chimneys with covered brickwork. Pediments with dentils capped the chimney walls that are flanked by pilasters.

The third floor was reached by a spiral staircase that was on the west side of the building. A hall on the north side served the stairway and the entrance to the representative's gallery. Originally, a dividing wall would have created two committee rooms over the hall and the Secretary of State's office. No evidence remains pertaining to the division of the committee rooms. Appointed and standing committees of three or four members used a small meeting room on the west side above the secretary's office. A larger room on the east side was used for county meetings with all the representatives from a single county. County meetings were usually held at the beginning of the session.

The committee rooms originally had plaster walls. The only evidence of the woodwork on the third floor is a solitary wooden doorjamb above the door to the representative's gallery.

Joseph Steward's Hartford Museum and Painting Gallery

In May 1796, a Hartford portrait painter, Reverend Joseph Steward, petitioned the General Assembly to operate a painting studio in the west committee room of the third floor. On June 5, 1797, Steward opened the Hartford Museum in the east committee room. He published an advertisement in "The Connecticut Courant":

Steward museum"JOSEPH STEWARD,
Respectfully informs the public, that his collection of paintings, and some other natural and artificial curiosities are exhibited in the East upper Space chamber in the State House. He likewise presents his thanks to those, who have patronized has design; and any further information of natural curiosities will be very gratefully received."

Steward painted many of his portraits from life. Still existing are his paintings of Eleazer Wheelock, the founder of Dartmouth College, and John Philips, the founder of Phillips Exeter Academy. Other of his portraits, such as that of Benjamin Franklin, must have been copied from prints.

Steward exhibited both natural and artificial objects. The curiosities included an eight and a half-foot alligator, a calf with two complete heads to one body, and collections of insects and butterflies. Several inventions, such as electrifying machines, were on exhibit. The museum was full of artificial and natural wonders.

Steward museumSteward continued his studio and museum in the State House until 1808. The state may have needed the space or Steward outgrew the limited space in the State House. He moved his studio and museum further north on Main Street. After his death his paintings hung in The Connecticut Historical Society.

Although Steward's Museum was unusual, it was not the only one of its kind. Charles Wilson Peale was operating a similar studio and museum in Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

A National Historic Landmark

The Old State House was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961 by the United States Department of the Interior.


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