Dubbed as West Virginia’s most recognizable and notable building, the state capitol building stands tall fronting the Kanawha River. It is located right on US Route 60, a east-west national highway that stretches 2,670 miles from Virginia to Arizona. The highway enters Charleston from Huntington, following the Kanawha River through to its source.
Made of buff limestone over a steel frame, the capitol building is capped with a majestic dome almost 300 feet in height. The building has strong Greek and Roman architectural influences, as is the style of its designer, pioneering architect, Cass Gilbert. He was the man who also designed the capitols for Minnesota and Arkansas, the United States Supreme Court Building, as well as the Woolworth Building in New York City, the tallest building in the world when it was built in 1913.
Though the state of West Virginia was created in 1863, it wasn’t until 1877 that Charleston was declared the seat of its capitol. For years since the state’s creation, the capitol alternated between Wheeling and Charleston, which involves moving the state’s archives, records and properties down the Ohio River and up the Kanawha into Charleston.
Charleton’s first state capitol first opened in May 1, 1885, but this is not the magnificent structure that we see today. After 36 years, the capitol building was razed down by a tragic fire. Story goes that several ammunition, rifle and machine guns were stored in the capitol’s top floor. A fire that started in the lower floors set off the ammunition and guns on the top floor, making the fire uncontrollable. This tragedy put forth another round of discussions about moving the capitol yet again, to either Clarksburg, Parkersburg or Huntington. But the capitol stayed put in Charleston, and a temporary capitol building was built in only 42 days. The temporary capitol didn’t last long either — after only 6 years, it also burned down in a fire in 1927.
By then, the legislature had already authorized the construction of the WV State Capitol building that we see today in Charleston. Construction was actually already in the way; by the time the temporary capitol burned down, the west wing of the capitol was done, and the east wing was nearing completion. The last to be constructed was main unit, which included dome.
The dome, apart from its impressive appearance outside is equally impressive on the inside. It features a Czechoslovakian-imported crystal chandelier weighing almost two tons. The lavish chandelier hangs 180-feet from the floor, and is lowered whenever a new governor is inaugurated into office and for its regular cleaning. Suspended by a 54-foot long gold chain, the chandelier is lowered by hand, taking more than three hours. Bringing it back up to its stationary position takes even longer — four and a half hours.