First State Heritage Park Part I: The Many Faces of the Old State House

I had the pleasure recently of a week in Dover, Delaware.  For those who don’t remember that long ago civics class in high school, Delaware was the first state to ratify the Constitution, and it was done in Dover.  The First State Heritage Park, located in the state of Delaware, is a fascinating entity.  However, I want to start by looking at one contributing building- the Old State House.

The Old State House was my first stop on my tour of Dover.  This building was commissioned as the Kent County Court House in the late 1700’s but was initially used in 1791 as The State House.  In fact, it was the first permanent government building in the capital city.  The building is Georgian style, with the standard square, symmetrical shape, Palladian windows, and the FLATTENED COLUMNS AND CROWN of the entry way.  The shingled hipped roof was topped with an octagonal cupola, popular in public buildings at the time.  From 1836 to 1926 wings were added to satisfy the growing needs of the government.

In 1873 the building received the popular Victorian gussying up. The Mansard roof, with dormer windows, is consistent with the vogue Second Empire architecture at that time.  Those shrewd architectural historians out there will note the Italian detailing which “corrupted” the United States version of this French style- the cornice and decorative brackets, as well as the central campanili-esque tower. 

The Old State House as it was originally built, after the Victorian renovation, and after initial restoration in the 1930s. Credits below.

1912 saw the restoration of the Old State house to its original colonial appearance- though the cupola retained a grandiose addition on top which was not in fact historic.  For those who prefer the Old State House in its colonial state, it is lucky that the additions were not damaging to the original fabric.  The Victorian era “restoration” projects such as this building witnessed rarely considered the retention of original materials or details of much importance.  If you look around enough historic areas, you are bound eventually to see a failed attempt at façade restoration.  It is a sad story when an attempt to remove a later addition to the façade reveals the fabric underneath to be damaged beyond repair, but it is common.  It would be curious to know exactly what materials and methods were used in the Victorian Second Empire style renovation, and if I learn more I will share. 

Delaware’s general assembly moved to the new State House in 1933, and the Old State House became home to various governmental offices until the 1970s.  The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.  In the patriotic zeal of 1976, the Old State House was first restored to its’ original 18th century appearance- including the removal of the top section of the cupola.  The most recent restoration took place between 2004 and 2007, and involved an overhaul of the buildings’ electrical, mechanical, plumbing and fire suppression systems, as well as addressing accessibility.  General maintenance of the exterior was addressed, from replacing roofing, windows, doors, to repointing the brick.  

Extensive work was done on the interior as well.  Next week I will share some of the interior of the Old State House, and talk about historic paint research.  

The Old State House today.
Photo courtesy of the author.

Photo credits: Engraving of the State House at Dover from John Warner Barber & Henry Howe, Our Whole Country or the Past and Present of the United States….Volume I (New York: Tuttle & McCauley, 1861), 565, courtesy of Dickinson College,; Postcard of Dover, courtesy of Mike Dixon on Old Delmarva Photos: A Window to the Peninsula’s Past,; The Green at Dover, mid to late 1930s courtesy of DelDOT,