Top 5 Unusual U.S. State Capitols

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If you’ve seen more than a few of the state capitol buildings in the United States, you realize their resemblance to a certain building in Washington, D.C., is not a coincidence. More than half of the state capitols borrowed liberally from the design of our nation’s capitol. Extensive use of granite and marble? Check. Columns? Check. Of course, many feature the obligatory dome on top, a design element also found on hundreds of county courthouses throughout the country.

Yet some state capitol architects boldly produced different designs, whether due to budget issues, time constraints or a sense of adventure. Here are the Top 5 unusual state capitols.


5. Alaska State Capitol

 Alaska voters have balked at proposals to replace the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau.

Credit: Thom Watson

If we had to summarize the appearance of the Alaska State Capitol in two words, we would say, “office park.” The building that houses Alaska’s state government has endured plenty of criticism not only for its pedestrian design, but for its location in Juneau. Several measures have been brought before state voters through the years to move the capitol elsewhere, but all have been defeated. Alaskans have also balked at proposals to construct a replacement building. If you’re in Juneau, it’s worth checking out, but otherwise, there will be no void in your life if you miss seeing this state capitol.


4. North Dakota State Capitol

The North Dakota State Capitol in Bismarck was built during the Great Depression.

Credit: Bobak Ha’eri

Known as the “Skyscraper on the Prairie,” the North Dakota State Capitol in Bismarck is a 19-story, art-deco-style building that stands 242 feet tall. That would make it a small office tower in many metropolitan areas, but in lightly populated North Dakota, the capitol is the tallest building. Finished in 1934 during the height of the Great Depression, the architects cut some corners to save money, forgoing several proposed decorative features. In fact, the budget was so tight that workers went on strike to protest their low wages, forcing state officials to institute martial law in 1933. That low-budget construction left the building without many of the ornate design features found on other state capitols, so if you’re planning a visit, be prepared to see a very plain building.


3. Oregon State Capitol

The Oregon State Capitol in Salem features some interesting design work inside and out.
We’re not sure how to describe the appearance of the Oregon State Capitol, but it is truly unique, and that quality has sparked criticism through the years. Constructed between 1936 and 1938, the building’s cupola, the building’s “crown,” has been derisively referred to by some as a “paint can.” However, if you’re in the Salem area, this building is a must visit to take in some of its design work both inside and out. Inside, the rotunda area features four murals depicting scenes from the state’s early history. The exterior features several intricate relief sculptures honoring the state’s history, including one with explorers Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea. The capitol site itself boasts well-manicured grounds, with a walkway bearing pavers honoring Oregon’s 36 counties and another walkway with flags from all 50 states.


2. Nebraska State Capitol

The Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln is the nation's second-highest state capitol.
Soaring more 400 feet above the Lincoln, Nebraska, landscape, the Nebraska State Capitol would look more at home amid the early 20th century skyscrapers of New York City than in America’s heartland. That’s not surprising, considering a New York architect with the colorful name of Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue designed the building after winning a nationwide design competition. It is the second-tallest state capitol in the United States, trailing only the Louisiana State Capitol, which took its design cues from the Nebraska building. The Nebraska building took a decade to build and was completed in 1932. By the way, the 19-foot sculpture crowning the dome is known as “The Sower,” honoring ancient civilizations, including that of Native Americans.


1. New Mexico State Capitol

Some believe the New Mexico State Capitol in Santa Fe resembles a college basketball arena.
Say you’re strolling through downtown Santa Fe and come across the New Mexico State Capitol. Your first thought might be, “That’s a nice college basketball arena — but where’s the college?” New Mexico’s capitol looks nothing like the other U.S state capitols, many of which were designed by architects who felt compelled to build a replica of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. New Mexico’s capitol, known locally as the Roundhouse, is the only round state capitol in the nation. There was a method to the madness in the design. When viewed from above, the building resembles the Zia sun symbol. The capitol, which was dedicated in 1966, features several interesting designs, sculptures and art elements honoring the region’s Native American past.


One More: Ohio State Capitol

Ohio's state capitol in Columbus looks like other capitols, minus the dome.
Where’s the top of the dome? Unlike other state capitol buildings that boast majestic domes, the Ohio State Capitol has a protuberance on top that looks as if it was planned as a dome in the design stage, but the architect didn’t finish his work. One possible explanation for the capitol’s undome: the building in Columbus was finished in 1861, before the United States Capitol’s distinctive dome was added in a project that concluded in 1866. The Ohio capitol features some interesting design work in the rotunda, including a starburst with 32 points, representing the states of the union when the floor was laid.

(Editors Note: There are a few other unusual capitol buildings in the United States, but they seem to fit in with their surrounding architecture so well, they didn’t make this list. Hawaii’s capitol is a prime example.)

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The author is a longtime professional journalist who has interviewed everyone from presidential contenders to hall of fame athletes to rock 'n' roll legends while covering politics, sports, and other topics for both local and national publications and websites. His latest passions are history, geography and travel. He's traveled extensively around the United States seeking out the hidden wonders of the country.