The Connecticut Democracy Center manages Connecticut’s Old State House on behalf of the General Assembly. Built as a state capitol in 1796, the Old State House is now the place where history and civics meet. It is the mission of Connecticut’s Old State House to reawaken citizen engagement and awareness by offering an authentic, educational and inspiring visitor experience. Not exactly a museum, more like a laboratory or classroom – for both the physical and virtual worlds. Ideas are on display in historic rooms and alongside historic objects: ideas that celebrate democracy and citizenship, not just viewed from the past but for today as well. At Connecticut’s Old State House, you’ll find many unique exhibits, historic rooms and over 22,000 square feet for people of all ages to explore.
Connecticut’s Old State House is currently under the direction of the Connecticut General Assembly. The building underwent a four year restoration and reopened on May 11, 1996, the two hundredth anniversary. It now reflects three architectural periods, Federal, Victorian, and Colonial Revival. The exterior building and the Senate have been restored to its original Federal appearance, while the Representative’s chamber reflects Victorian and the halls and courtroom are Colonial Revival.
Hartford, in the 1790s, was a scene of commercial and social growth. Following the post-Revolution depression, Connecticut became stable and prosperous throughout the 1790’s. Many residents of Hartford saw improvements in their financial and social standings. Capital investments in commerce and trade were encountering success. The influence of the prominent Connecticut families with either civilian or military backgrounds and the pride of the citizens in winning the American Revolution were the settings for the construction of a new State House.
The noted architect, Charles Bulfinch of Boston, is credited with designing the Hartford State House. It was his first public building design. After his return to Boston from a trip to England, Bulfinch spent his time in leisure and pursued “no business”. By 1793, he began to focus his attention on architecture.
Connecticut’s Old State House is, in appearance, remarkably similar to the Liverpool, England Town Hall, built in the mid-eighteenth century. The designs of the arcade on the ground floor and the east portico that so closely resemble those of Connecticut’s Old State House support the evidence that Charles Bulfinch was the architect of Connecticut’s Old State House.
There is little surviving evidence that Bulfinch was the architect. A letter to Oliver Wolcott, Jr. from John Trumbull dated September 30, 1792 states “A new State House is to be built here next year upon a design of Mr. Bulfinch, which I think is worth executing in the best materials”. The reference by Trumbull is the only documentation giving credit to Bulfinch.
Inference of Bulfinch’s involvement can be found in other documents, however. One is a voucher from John Chester, chairman of the building committee, in September 1792 for “Journey and expenses to Boston for a plan of said State House, $31.60”. Another voucher was for a trip to Boston by John Leffingwell in July 1793, the master builder named to the project, on state house business presumably to talk with Bulfinch about some of the details. There are also expense accounts for Asher Benjamin, a disciple of Bulfinch, to work on the stone spiral staircase. A report of the building committee for May 16, 1793 states:
“Your Honors Committee appointed at your session in May last, to Build a State House in said Hartford, beg leave respectfully to represent your Honors, that they have procured from an able artist an elegant plan or model for a State House, well calculated for the accommodation of your Honors and for the Judicial department, with suitable rooms for Committees & offices for the Treasurer and Comptroller.”
We can determine that Charles Bulfinch designed the state house from the evidence. The name of Bulfinch in the letter from Trumbull, the trips to Boston by Chester and Leffingwell and the description of the rooms planned from an able artist all lead to Charles Bulfinch. However, it is the innovative features of Bulfinch designs that are the most compelling reasons to credit him as the designer.
The Old State House was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961 by the United States Department of the Interior.