Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Hidden in plain sight: New Jersey's original State House

Its gilded dome shining on a bluff above the Delaware River, the New Jersey State House isn't exactly hidden, but if you were Governor Richard Howell, you might say otherwise. Serving from 1793-1801, New Jersey's third governor was accustomed to a much less ornate seat of government which, while not obvious to the casual observer, is actually still there, 220 years later.

Confused? We found out more on our visit to Trenton for the celebration of New Jersey's 350th birthday, when the State House hosted a viewing of the document that conveyed the then-colony to Sir George Carteret and John Berkeley, Lord of Stratton. Tours of the building's public areas are available six days a week, yours for the asking, and we asked.

New Jersey State House, Hidden New Jersey
New Jersey's original 1792 Statehouse.
The nation's second oldest state capitol building still in use, the building on West State Street looks nothing like what our earliest legislators saw when they convened in their new Trenton chambers in 1792. Constructed of stone by Philadelphia builder Jonathan Doan, the original modest cupola-topped building had just enough room for senate and assembly chambers plus a courtroom and office space for the governor. Chances are that today, we'd walk by a comparable building without giving a second thought of it having any great significance, but its size likely made it remarkable in the Central New Jersey of the late 18th century.

The look of a 'real' capitol building didn't come until 1844, with the adoption of New Jersey's second constitution. As the executive branch grew in importance and the court system evolved, both branches needed more space in which to conduct government work. Chosen to build onto the existing State House, Philadelphia architect John Notman brought grandeur to the capitol, designing an addition with a striking dome topping an ornate three-story rotunda. Standing closer to West State Street than the existing building, the new building's facade blocked the view of the original 1792 State House, starting its fade into obscurity. Further enlargements in 1871 dwarved the Doan structure, which was modified to relocate the governor's office into the former assembly chamber.

The gilded dome, from within the rotunda.
Pretty impressive.
Ironically, the Notman addition fronted the State House for an even shorter period of time than the original it dwarfed. Destroyed in an early morning fire in March 1885, it was soon replaced by an even more ornate version designed by Jersey City architect Louis Broome. Like the Notman version, Broome's design included columns but added an even more impressive dome.

Over the ensuing years, the growth of state government led to additional enlargements and modifications to the State House, and even a separate annex built in the 1920s. The whole shebang almost got torn down following the adoption of the 1947 constitution, which essentially made New Jersey's governor the most powerful chief executive in any of the states. Fortunately, plans for a more modern State House were shelved due to lack of funds, and our historic capitol building, original, additions and all, was saved from the wrecking ball.

Why would the government want to tear down such a historic structure? Our frequent reference, the WPA Guide to 1930s New Jersey, offers a hint of what might have been the prevailing attitude about the State House at the time: "The three-and-one-half story facade is in the French renaissance style, with a clumsy two-tier entrance porch supported on small scale polished granite columns. What remains of the original structure, built circa 1792, is now a part of the present building, although exactly what part is uncertain. Subsequent growth has been without regard to any foresighted plan [...] The ill-lighted main entrance corridor is hung with indistinguishable portraits of early Jersey statesmen and patriots; portraits of various Governors hang in the executive chambers." Look to the architecture of the Federal and state buildings of the day, and you'll find clean lines with little decoration, no fussiness and certainly no classical flourishes. The modern was in. Your grandfather's classicism was out.

Restoration in the late 80s and early 90s brought much of the shine and grandeur of the State House back, and it remains today. The rotunda provides an impressive entrance to our government's central building, and the legislative chambers convey the state's history along with a seriousness of purpose. Still, it's pretty much impossible to tell where the original State House begins and ends. Our guide pointed out an archway leading from the rotunda to the hallway between the governor's suite and that of some of his staff members, telling us that it was the site of the original entrance to the 1792 building. To our eyes, there was nothing distinct about the walls, floors or ceilings to indicate its post-colonial heritage; it all looked to be of the same vintage as every other part of the building we saw that day.

Still, though: it's there. Trust us.

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