Since the Commonwealth’s founding in 1682, Pennsylvania’s capitals have been located in the cities of Philadelphia, Lancaster and Harrisburg. William Penn chose Philadelphia as the capital of his colony because of its prime shipping location on the Delaware River. The city was the center of politics, wealth and trade in the 1700s.
For its first five decades, Pennsylvania’s Legislature had no official meeting place. Members assembled in the Philadelphia area wherever space could be found – in homes, town halls and schools. As the colony increased in population, the Assembly became too large for meeting in the homes of Governors and other spaces. A separate State House would provide a permanent place for the Colonial Assembly, Provincial Council and Supreme Court to meet.
The state Legislature passed an Act in 1810 that made the borough – now city – of Harrisburg, on the banks of the Susquehanna River, the state capital effective in October of 1812. The Assembly met in the Dauphin County Courthouse while Legislators debated where, when and how to build a new Capitol. Actual construction of the new Capitol building began at noon on May 31, 1819, when the cornerstone was laid. The Capitol was finished on January 2, 1822, at a cost of $135,000.
On February 2, 1897, the Capitol burned down. Within hours of discovering the first signs of smoke, the building was in ruin. While the Legislature was in session, a fire burned undetected beneath the floor of the Lieutenant Governor’s office. Although outside a blizzard hampered efforts to battle the blaze, no one was killed. An investigation was ordered but it failed to establish the cause of the blaze. Circumstantial evidence, however, indicated that a faulty fireplace flue was the cause. The loss of the building was a great tragedy to Pennsylvanians and particularly to residents of Harrisburg.
During the interim between 1897 and the early 1900s, the Legislature met at Grace United Methodist Church which still stands on nearby State Street. The House met in the main part of the church, while the Senate convened in the large Sunday school room.
Only $550,000 was allocated to build a new Capital. Chicago architect Henry Ives Cobb was selected for the job. With the limited funds available to him he erected a plain brick building which Governor William A. Stone described as “made of common brick embedded in cheap mortar, looks like a hastily erected factory building and is repulsive to the eye.”
In 1901, the Legislature decided to remedy its embarrassment over the undistinguished Capitol. A second design competition, open only to Pennsylvanians, was held to finish the job. The new Capitol, designed by Philadelphia architect Joseph M. Huston, incorporated the walls of the 1898 plan and building.
The cornerstone for the new Capitol was laid on May 5, 1904. In contrast to the low budget Cobb Capitol, the finished building was declared “the most beautiful state Capitol in the nation,” by President Theodore Roosevelt when he dedicated it with joyous ceremony on October 4, 1906. Built and furnished at a cost of $12 million, the building was designed in the classic renaissance style. Its five-story exterior is faced with Vermont granite and the roof is made of green glazed tile. The Capitol is 520 feet long and 254 feet wide and covers two acres of ground.
— information taken from the booklet “The Capitol”