Visiting the North Carolina State Capitol in Raleigh, N.C.
Wednesday, October 02, 2019, 6pm by visitRaleigh
The North Carolina State Capitol is one of the finest and best-preserved examples of Greek Revival-style architecture in the United States. Officially added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970, the Capitol gives visitors an exciting opportunity to immerse themselves in the history of North Carolina politics and of Raleigh as a capital city.
Each year, more than 100,000 visitors take part in free tours, educational programs and events at the Capitol in downtown Raleigh. Here's some helpful info on how you can, too!
Construction of the Capitol
Located in what was originally the exact middle of Raleigh, the North Carolina State Capitol was erected on Union Square after the first State House was destroyed in a catastrophic fire in 1831 (built in 1796, the original State House burned down while, ironically, the building was being fireproofed). The new building, completed in 1840, would go on to house all of North Carolina’s state government until 1888. Today, the governor, lieutenant governor and their staffs occupy offices on-site, and the building continues to be used for official state business, including bill signings, press conferences, oath of office ceremonies and historic commemorations.
Fans of ancient Greek temples will appreciate the neoclassical design of the North Carolina State Capitol with its marble interiors and its exterior columns modeled after those of the Parthenon. The beautiful rotunda sports a dome ceiling that allows natural light to stream down upon various intriguing exhibits. These include several plaques, various bust sculptures, an exhibit on the evolution of the state flag and a statue of George Washington dressed as a Roman general.
Other must-see features inside the Capitol include the state Senate and House chambers (both used until 1961 before moving to the North Carolina Legislative Building), which have been meticulously restored to their 1840 appearance. Visitors will also enjoy the intricate ceiling detail, woodwork and geological exhibits on display in a re-creation of the State Library Room, which occupied a third-floor space until 1888.
Two George Washington monuments
Visitors to the Capitol today are first greeted in the rotunda by a larger-than-life marble statue of George Washington dressed in Roman clothing. This Capitol centerpiece is actually a copy of Antonio Canova's original statue of Washington, which was first put on display in the State House on Dec. 24, 1821, to great fanfare. Canova—an Italian artist that was hand chosen for the project by Thomas Jefferson—depicts Washington in a Roman general's uniform with body armor and a short cape. When the first State House burned to the ground in 1831, the destroyed statue had only lived a short 10 years. If it had survived the fire, experts say that today the statue would have been one of America's most valuable artworks.
As a replacement, in 1857 the State of North Carolina commissioned a new piece. A life-size bronze statue of Washington—created by William James Hubbard and Jean-Antoine Houdon—now sits on the South-facing side of the Capitol grounds. The statue depicts Washington in American military dress, in stark contrast to Canova's work.
In 1925, the General Assembly appointed a commission to secure a new replica of Canova's original statue. It took 45 years until 1970 for a 16-foot-tall marble replica of the original Washington statue—created by Venetian sculptor Romano Vio—to make it's debut in the new Capitol's rotunda where you'll find it today.
Scattered across Union Square where the Capitol sits are commemorative monuments to other U.S. presidents—Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson and James K. Polk—as well as other notable figures like state governors and prominent historical businessmen. There are also statues and monuments commemorating veterans of various major armed conflicts including both World Wars, the Vietnam War and the Korean War. Be sure to also check out the two historical cannons located on the south side of the square that date back to 1748.
Around the Capitol
Just steps away from the Capitol are three additional museums that are free to explore: the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, the North Carolina Museum of History and the City of Raleigh Museum (COR Museum). The COR Museum also resides on Fayetteville St.—a central thoroughfare filled with restaurants, shops, bars and more.
For a bit of green space in heart of downtown Raleigh, stroll over to Moore Square. There you’ll find plenty of park benches, a large, open space perfect for picnics and outdoor games as well as Square Burger, a fast-casual restaurant serving up delicious burgers, fries, shakes and more. Be sure to visit historic City Market as well with its quaint cobblestone streets and selection of open-air shopping and dining options just waiting to be explored.
When to Visit the Capitol
The Capitol is open to visitors for self-guided tours Mon.-Sat., 9am-5pm, and is closed on most major state holidays. Guided tours take place on Sat. at 11am and 2pm.
In Dec., the Capitol hosts a handful of festive holiday events, from a tree lighting to an open house. There’s also an Independence Day celebration that takes place each year at Union Square.
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences photo by Karen Swain