Regarded by many observers as the most historic building in Mississippi, the Old Capitol is a centerpiece of the state’s history and a National Historic Landmark. The building—the second capitol facility constructed in Jackson—was authorized after the 1832 constitution confirmed that Jackson would remain the state capital until at least 1850. Leaders envisioned a more expansive capitol that would serve the rapidly growing state for years to come.
William Nichols, designer of the North Carolina and Alabama capitols and one of the South’s premier architects, was hired to build the capitol after an earlier false start by another architect. Nichols’s plan called for a Greek Revival–style statehouse, a popular form at the time for public buildings because of its association with classical Greek and Roman societies. The style was also practical in the southern climate because several of its features, such as galleries, large windows, and high ceilings, facilitated air circulation.
Despite many handicaps such as economic depression and a lack of skilled labor, the capitol was largely completed by January 1839, when the legislature first met in the new building. The imposing three-story structure was topped by a massive copper-plated rotunda rising nearly one hundred feet from the limestone ground floor. Throughout the interior, intricate handmade Greek Revival architectural elements adorned the building.
Several key moments in Mississippi’s history transpired within the walls of the Old Capitol. In 1839 the Mississippi legislature became the first in the nation to confer property rights on married women, and the secession convention, which voted to take Mississippi out of the Union, met there in January 1861. The election of Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first African American to serve in the US Congress, took place there in 1870, and in 1884 the legislature created the first state-supported college for women in the United States, the Industrial Institute and College for the Education of White Girls of the State of Mississippi (now Mississippi University for Women). In 1890 the building hosted the state constitutional convention. In addition, national figures including Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and Jefferson Davis visited the Old Capitol.
Though Union forces captured the city of Jackson during the Civil War, the Old Capitol escaped destruction. By 1900, however, the building had fallen into disrepair, and a new, larger capitol was constructed nearby. Although there were plans at the time to destroy the Old Capitol and sell the land it occupied, patriotic organizations and leading citizens including Dunbar Rowland, the first director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, persuaded the legislature to restore the building. From 1917 to 1959 it was used as a state office building, housing such agencies as the Board of Health, Department of Education, and Department of Agriculture.
Under the leadership of Gov. James P. Coleman, the building underwent an extensive restoration from 1959 to 1961 to serve as the state historical museum, administered by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 resulted in the closure of the museum. It reopened after extensive restoration in 2009 with a focus on the interpretation of Mississippi’s political and governmental heritage, the importance of historic preservation, and the storied past of the Old Capitol itself.
- John Ray Skates, Mississippi’s Old Capitol: Biography of a Building (1990)