History of the Capitol—Building a Landmark
The story of the New York State Capitol begins in 1797, when the City of Albany officially became the state’s capital. In 1804, the city donated land for the construction of a Capitol at the top of State Street hill, and New York’s first Capitol, a federal style structure designed by architect Philip Hooker, was completed in 1809.
A half century later, by the time of the Civil War, New York State government had outgrown the first Capitol. Many legislators desired a much grander structure in keeping with the status and importance of the Empire State. In 1865, the legislature authorized the construction of a new Capitol, and a three-man Capitol Commission was formed to solicit designs for a Capitol that would serve as a monument to democracy and a source of pride for all New Yorkers.
The winner of the Capitol design competition was Thomas Fuller, a Canadian who designed an imposing Italian Renaissance style building with high towers, a dramatic rotunda, and a central courtyard. In 1867, the first portion of the anticipated $4 million budget was allocated. The groundbreaking ceremony was held on December 9, 1867. This event marked the beginning of the saga of the Capitol’s construction, lasting thirty-two years. The total cost of the building would exceed $25 million, making it more expensive than the U.S. Capitol.
During the excavation, Fuller and his team of engineers were challenged by the discovery that the foundations would be laid on glacial clay deposits laced with quicksand. Engineers developed a unique foundation system, replacing the sand with clay or concrete. A four-foot concrete mat was laid for the basement floor.
A photographer documented construction workers setting the foundations for the Capitol building in 1869 and 1870. Massive stones were hauled from the Hudson River up State Street by teams of horses, and set in place using steam engines.
The cornerstone was laid in 1871 in a grand ceremony. Governor John T. Hoffman presided over the ceremony, which was held in the pouring rain.
By 1874, the estimated cost of the new Capitol had risen to $12 million, and construction had progressed only to the second story. Thomas Fuller was dismissed and replaced by Henry Hobson Richardson, Leopold Eidlitz, and Frederick Law Olmsted, who was the best-known landscape architect of the time and designer of Manhattan’s Central Park.
Eidlitz and Richardson quickly developed a framework for their collaboration by working together on the exterior and dividing the interior spaces. Olmsted assisted with the planning in addition to designing the Capitol’s future landscape. Their revised plan recommended a change in style from Fuller’s Italian Renaissance design to Romanesque, while the roof remained French Renaissance.
By 1879, Eidlitz had completed the Assembly Chamber, the Assembly Staircase, and the Court of Appeals Chamber, which would function as a temporary space for the Senate while construction on the Senate Chamber progressed. Stoneworkers, sculptors, and craftsmen created dramatic interior spaces with Gothic and Moorish details.
Although much of the building was still a construction site, the Assembly Chamber was opened to the public in January 1879 with a grand reception.
The crowing jewel to the Assembly Chamber was its stone vaulted-arch ceiling. It was the largest ceiling of its kind ever to be built with the keystone 56 feet above the floor. Unfortunately, the ceiling lasted for only ten years. Shifts in the Capitol’s foundation caused the ceiling to crack and fall away. After a number of attempted repairs, the ceiling was declared unsafe and replaced with a lower wood, plaster, and papier-mâché ceiling in 1888.
H.H. Richardson’s contributions to the Capitol included the Senate Chamber, the Executive Chamber, and the initial plans for the Great Western Staircase.
After his election in 1883, Governor Grover Cleveland hired Isaac Perry to serve as architect for the Capitol. Perry executed the plans of Eidlitz and Richardson while adding his own ideas and embellishments, including the elaborate stone carvings on the Great Western Staircase. Perry completed the Senate Staircase, the Great Western Staircase, and designed and built the eastern front approach. His ideas brought more light and air into the Capitol.
By 1897, most of the Capitol was complete, except for the monumental tower intended to cap the building’s eastern façade. However, engineering concerns over the tower’s weight and impatience with the pace and cost of construction led the Capitol Commission to defer plans for the tower until “future generations command the courage to attempt it.” In 1899, Governor Theodore Roosevelt declared that construction on the Capitol was complete.
In 1911, fire ravaged portions of the Capitol, including the State Library in the western end of the building. Most of the library’s irreplaceable collections of historic documents were destroyed. The fire prompted planning for better fire safety in the building.
In 1979, the U.S. Department of the Interior designated the Capitol as a National Historic Landmark, the highest recognition a historical building can receive. Since then, the New York State Capitol has undergone extensive restoration in an effort to maintain and protect the building and return many spaces to their nineteenth-century appearance. At the same time, improvements are continually made to ensure that the Capitol will continue to meet the needs of state government and future generations of New Yorkers.