Within days of the fire that consumed the picturesque West Virginia capitol in downtown Charleston, political leaders began to plan for a new and grander structure. On January 21, 1921, the legislature adopted a joint resolution to raise a commission composed of the Board of Public Works, five members each from the House and the Senate, the Senate president and House speaker, and the governor. In July of 1921, they selected architect Cass Gilbert, whose achievements included some of the most famous buildings in the nation.
Site selection was not so clear cut, with many Charleston residents advocating the capitol be rebuilt at the downtown location while others favored the less congested east end of the city. Architect Gilbert and the commission’s engineer, M. W. Venable, preferred another site near the current Charleston Area Medical Center on the Kanawha City side of the Kanawha River. The commission selected the site in the city’s east end, however, reasoning the location would be less costly to develop.
The three units of the capitol complex were let as separate contracts, each financed, constructed, and inspected before the next was begun. Each unit was built for less than the legislative appropriation, first the west wing at a cost of $1,218,171.32; then the east wing at $1,361,425.00; and last the main unit and connecting wings for $4,482,623.21. Counting the costs of land acquisition and beautification, West Virginia invested a gross sum of $9,491,180.03 for one of the nation’s most beautiful and functional capitols. ‘‘While not extravagant or elaborate in detail or material,’’ the architect said, ‘‘nevertheless it can properly take its place as among the best buildings in the United States.’’
Groundbreaking for the west wing was in January 1924, and this first phase was completed in March 1925; the east wing was built between July 1926 and December 1927; and work on the main building and connecting wings commenced in March 1930, was completed in February 1932, and officially dedicated on West Virginia Day, June 20, 1932.
The wings measure 300 feet by 60 feet, each including four stories and a basement; the exterior walls are constructed of Indiana select buff limestone; and the interior walls and floors are Tennessee marble. The main unit is 558 feet by 120 feet, with three stories and a basement; and the connecting wings are one story with connecting basement passages. These exterior walls are of the same limestone, but the interior walls and floors combine Imperial Danby Vermont marble and Italian Travertine marble. The combined floor space is 535,000 square feet; 4,640 tons of steel and more than 300,000 cubic yards of limestone were used in the construction. The dome rises 292 feet, is 75 feet in diameter, and is made of lead, coated with copper, and covered in gold leaf trimmed in blue. A 4,000-pound chandelier hangs about 180 feet above the ground floor in the dome’s interior. The dome is taller but not as broad as the dome on our nation’s capitol. Marble from France and Belgium as well as decorative materials from other countries adorn the capitol’s principal foyers and legislative chambers.
The capitol is as much a museum as an office complex, and this is evident at every turn in its corridors, from the Czechoslovakian crystal chandeliers to the quartered oak doors and black walnut desks, from the mythological heads carved at the entrances to the interior artistry of marble, bronze, and plaster. The hands of thousands of skilled craftsmen and artisans erected a grand monument, but also forged a substantial testament to a state’s dedication and commitment, securely mooring the state’s capitol on the banks of the Kanawha River.
This Article was written by Bob Damron
Damron, Bob. Building the Capitol. Goldenseal, (Summer 1982).