May 11: Connecticut’s New State House Sends a Message to America

 

In the early years of the American Republic, Connecticut held itself up to the nation as a model for creating the kind of stable, citizen-selected-and-run government that was central to the success of the American project.  Thanks to the Royal Charter of 1662, which had given Connecticut virtual independence 114 years before the Declaration of Independence, Connecticut had demonstrated its ability to choose its own leaders and self-govern with stability for well over a century.  A host of writers and political leaders including Noah Webster, Timothy Dwight, Roger Sherman, David Humphreys and Oliver Ellsworth all presented Connecticut as the model for the new nation and states to look to when developing their own frameworks of self-government.  To underscore their assertions of Connecticut’s political pre-eminence, the state authorized the construction of a governmental center that would stand as a visual icon of the state’s stable, successful approach to self-rule.  That edifice, which still stands at the historic center of Hartford, is the Old State House, a beautiful federal-era building that opened for business today in 1796, as the state legislature met inside its spacious chambers for the first time. Designed by pioneering American architect Charles Bulfinch, the State House served as Connecticut’s capitol for 83 years and ushered the state through the transformation from agrarian republic to industrial colossus.

Built with brownstone quarried from Portland, Connecticut, the State House was designed to impress, sitting on an elevated location overlooking the bustling ports on the Connecticut River below. In the 1790s, Hartford was a vibrant and rapidly expanding city, and the State House building reflected the latest trends in neoclassical architecture, with symmetrical porticoes, arches, and Greek columns throughout.

“Hartford: A View of the State House from the Connecticut River” by John Stobart, 1876.

For most of the 19th century, Connecticut actually had two capital cities; Hartford and New Haven took turns hosting the state government on alternating years until 1875, when Hartford became Connecticut’s sole capital. From 1796 to 1878, the State House in Hartford served as the official place of business for all three branches of state government — executive, legislative, and judicial — whenever it convened in Hartford. The State House played host to a number of historically significant events, including the Hartford Convention of 1814 and the Amistad trial of 1841.

In 1878, the state government moved into the Gothic-style state capitol building located on Hartford’s Capitol Avenue, where it continues to meet to this day. After decades of neglect, the Old State House underwent a series of extensive renovations in the late 20th century and reopened as a museum in 1996, its 200th anniversary year. Inside, various offices, meeting halls, and chambers have been restored to reflect Federal, Victorian, and Colonial Revival styles of architecture. One of the museum’s most famous features is a recreation of Joseph Steward’s “Hartford Museum” cabinet of curiosities, which operated within the State House from 1797 to 1808 — just one year after the Old State House first opened its doors, today in 1796.

Further Reading

Old State House Architecture,” Connecticut’s Old State House website

Connecticut’s Cultural Treasures: The Old State House,” Connecticut Public Television

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