By JAMES E. CASTO ∙ For The State Journal
CHARLESTON — When he was hired to design a new capitol for the state of West Virginia, famed architect Cass Gilbert wrote: "I want to make this capitol building the crowning work of my life."
Since its dedication 80 years ago, in 1932, during the darkest days of the Great Depression, the West Virginia Capitol has proven to be more than worthy of Gilbert's hope for it. In his authoritative "Buildings of West Virginia," architectural historian S. Allen Chambers Jr. labels it "magnificent," and describes it as "beautifully sited, perfectly proportioned and handsomely detailed."
As conceived by Gilbert, the Capitol is a mammoth structure that boasts 14 acres of floor space, divided into 333 rooms. Like the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., the Mountain State's capitol is topped with a grand dome. But West Virginia's is five feet higher. And, unlike that of the U.S. Capitol, the West Virginia dome is gilded with real gold.
The building's exterior, fashioned from Indiana limestone, abounds with decorative touches, many of them the handiwork of skilled Italian stonecutters. The interior is mostly Vermont marble.
Though altered a bit over the years, the grandly decorated and appointed chambers of the House of Delegates and Senate still look much as Gilbert intended. Lawmakers still sit at the chamber's original desks, crafted from native black walnut. Although today they have the benefit of laptop computers, wireless access and an electronic voting system.
In the Capitol's rotunda hangs a one-of-a-kind, 4,000-pound chandelier fashioned from Czechoslovakian crystal. Every four years, just before the governor's inauguration, workmen gently lower the giant chandelier to the floor, then carefully remove and clean each of its 3,000 individual pieces so they glint and sparkle.
Gilbert's masterpieces are the final structure in a series of buildings — some grand, some not so grand — that have been West Virginia's seat of government over the years.
When West Virginia joined the union in 1863, Wheeling became the new state's capital city. The choice seemed logical. After all, Wheeling was the state's largest city, a thriving commercial center and a transportation hub that was well served by river, road and rail.
Nevertheless, many people elsewhere in the state weren't happy with the choice and immediately began agitating for a more central location. Urged on by Charleston business and political leaders, the Legislature in 1870 selected Charleston as the state's "permanent seat of government."
Despite the wording, the choice was to prove anything but "permanent." In the first 20 years of statehood, West Virginia's state government moved from Wheeling to Charleston, then back to Wheeling and finally back to Charleston again. Each of these moves was by riverboat, a fact that prompted some folks to laugh about the state's "floating capitol."
When state government moved to Charleston for the second time, it moved into an ornate brick Capitol building. Built in Victorian style, the new Capitol had 85 rooms and was topped with an impressive clock tower. It was easily the biggest, fanciest building in town.
On Jan. 3, 1921, a fast-spreading fire broke out at the Capitol and rapidly consumed it and most of its contents. When the fire was extinguished, the structure's walls were still standing but the interior was nothing more than a hollow shell. State government was forced to take up temporary quarters in various buildings around Charleston. Eventually a temporary structure of wood and wallboard was built. Known as the "Pasteboard Capitol," it, too, was destroyed by fire in 1927.
But by then the West Wing of the grand new Capitol was under construction. In the wake of the Capitol fire, the Legislature appointed a commission to select both an architect for a new Capitol and a "suitable location for a complex of buildings of impressive structure."
The building was built in stages — first came the West Wing, which was completed in 1925, then the East Wing, completed in 1928, and finally the center section with its soaring dome.
When work on the new building began, the nation was enjoying unprecedented prosperity. But the 1929 stock market crash sent the economy into a tailspin. By 1930, thousands of West Virginians were jobless. Pointing out that many families were struggling just to put food on their tables, some newspaper editorial writers and others denounced the state government for spending millions of dollars to build itself a fancy new home.
But with the project nearing completion, the Legislature ignored the criticism and pressed ahead.
Government construction projects often end up costing far more than their original estimates. Not so with the West Virginia Capitol. Gilbert and all involved took pride in the fact that the project came in under budget. The total outlay, including land acquisition, was $9.4 million.
When the completed Capitol was dedicated on June 20, 1932, the state's 69th birthday, then-Gov. William G. Conley pronounced it "a monument to West Virginians of yesterday, today and tomorrow."
After 80 years, it remains such today.