The first time I served in the legislature in 1969, I got to be in the old state capitol building. The new one opened in 1971. So the new one is turning fifty. But the old one is turning one hundred and fifty, and that’s the story we want to tell you today.
When Carson City became the territorial capital in 1861, it was mainly because of local merchant Abe Curry. He gave the legislature space to meet in his hotel. He also gave the state ten acres or four city blocks in the middle of town where an actual government building would go. But it didn’t happen right after Nevada became a state in 1864. The 1869 state legislature finally passed a bill to provide one hundred thousand dollars to construct a state capitol. A board chose the lowest bid, but the costs ran to about one hundred and seventy thousand. And that was even with the sandstone for the construction coming free of charge from the quarry at the Nevada State Prison!
San Francisco architect Joseph Gosling designed the Capitol for a fee of two hundred and fifty dollars. The Classical Revival, two-story building with an octagonal dome weren’t finished when the 1871 legislative session began, but they met there anyway. The work was done by May 1, and all three branches of Nevada state government worked there.
A couple of stories circulated about the building. One was that the dome was made of silver—after all, we’re the Silver State. But it wasn’t true. Originally, it was made out of tin and painted red, but it was repainted silver in 1876.
The other involved a fence. In 1875, the legislature decided to do something about the muddy field in front of the building. Cows would wander in and people threw their garbage onto it—apparently to be litterbugs, not as a protest. So the legislature set aside money to build a stone foundation with iron railing, as well as for water pipes and landscaping. The winning bid for the fence portion came from H.K. Clapp of Carson City … Hannah Clapp, who ran a school nearby. She and her partner Eliza Babcock got the fence built and made a substantial profit on it. But that grew into a myth that they did all of the work themselves and no one had known the bidder was a woman.
With a few decades, the state government needed more space and hired longtime Nevada architect Frederic DeLongchamps to design an expansion. The legislature moved into new north and south wings in 1915. But again, things got a bit crowded. In 1937, the Nevada Supreme Court moved to a nearby building—and it’s interesting that just two years before, the United States Supreme Court had moved out of its chamber on Capitol Hill to ITS own building. Finally, in 1971, the state legislature moved to the building it’s in now. All that remained in the old Capitol building were space for the governor’s office and an exhibit area. But it’s still a classic building, one hundred and fifty years after it was the brand-new headquarters for the legislature of a brand-new state. I’m glad I got to serve in there.
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