In the early years after the establishment of America as an independent country, each of the individual – yet united – states established a capital city and set about building a state government and a building in which to house it.
Today, the oldest remaining of these early state capitol buildings stands in Hartford, Connecticut. The Old State House, as it is now known, was completed in 1796, and for over 90 years served as the seat of state government in Connecticut.
In that time, the building saw its share of history in the years following the American Revolution. The first governor to serve and maintain an office in the building was Oliver Wolcott, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Nearly a half century after the war, in 1825, the Marquis de La Fayette was made an honorary citizen in his final visit to America in a ceremony at the Old State House. Today, his statute stands nearby. In 1839, the famed trial of Cinque and the rebellious slaves from the ship Amistad was held in the building’s Colonial Revival style courtroom. Following the Civil War, P.T. Barnum served two terms in the Old State House as a member of the Connecticut legislature.
The Federal style Old State House was designed by the noted architect Charles Bullfinch. It was the first public building Bulfinch designed in a career that eventually led to his designing the state capitol buildings in Massachusetts and Maine, as well as the dome and rotunda of the U. S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. The Old State House’s resemblance to Town Hall in Liverpool, England has led to speculation that he may have formulated his idea after seeing the British building in an architecture book.
In the 1870s, a new Victorian Gothic state capitol building was constructed in Hartford for the Connecticut state government. The Old State House, declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960, continued to be used for ceremonial occasions. Today, the fully restored Old State House is open to visitors who can tour the original House and Senate chambers, as well as the hallways, offices and the courtroom.
On an unusual note, the third floor of the Old State House contains the Joseph Steward Museum of Natural and Other Curiosities, a recreation of the collection the local Hartford, Connecticut painter put on display in the attic of the building in 1800. Stuffed rare birds and woodland creatures are on display, along with a collection of oddities such as a two-headed calf, albino animals and an 8-foot alligator are on display. These were all popular attractions at the turn of the 19th-century, apparently.
The Old State House is located at 800 Main Street in downtown Hartford, Connecticut. It is open on weekdays from 9am to 5pm, and Saturdays in July and August. There is a small admission charge.