Historical Markers
State Capitol Historical Marker
Mouse over for marker text

State Capitol

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
City Main entrance to Capitol (north of steps), Harrisburg

Dedication Date:
August 11, 1953

Behind the Marker

Exterior, color, as seen from Reservoir Park in Harrisburg
flip zoom
Pennsylvania State Capitol, Harrisburg, PA, July 14 2008.
When on October 4, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt dedicated the present Pennsylvania state Capitol building, he declared, "It's the handsomest building I ever saw." A century later, after painstaking restoration that began in 1982, the building still strikes visitors with awe. Here, one can gaze into the magnificent dome modeled after the central vault of St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome, which rises 272 feet, or marvel at the white marble staircases and beautiful legislative chambers that resemble the opulent Paris Opera House, built by Napoleon III. The Capitol is, indeed, a monument to Pennsylvania's wealth and confidence in its greatness as the twentieth century began.
Interior of the Governor’s Room, State Capitol, Harrisburg, PA, circa 1906.
Interior of the Governor’s Room, State Capitol, Harrisburg, PA, circa 1906....

Today, the State Capitol, which took eight years to build and furnish at the cost of $13 million, might seem like the bargain of the century. In the early 1900s, however, many critics argued it was the steal of the century. While the edifice itself only cost $4 million and, in fact, came in under budget, the furnishings cost $9 million, perhaps twice their real value. Not since New York Boss William Tweed's infamous New York courthouse had an American public building been the focus of so much scandal.

Architect Joseph Huston, Superintendent of Construction James Shumaker, state treasurer William Matheus, state auditor William P. Snyder, and contractor John Sanderson all went to jail. Sanderson won the most notoriety for supplying the building with paneling worth $1,800 that cost the state $15,000, $60 sofas purchased for $550, and a flagpole whose cost was inflated six times. The group billed the state for Tiffany glass but provided only plain glass and in certain areas used plaster instead of mahogany. The lighting system, which is still magnificent, cost $2 million, the most expensive in the world.
Oil on canvas of Samuel W. Pennypacker
flip zoom
Samuel W. Pennypacker, Governor of Pennsylvania, 1903-1907.

The Capitol had many prominent defenders, including Governor Samuel Pennypacker (1903-07), who was so entranced by its beauty that he published an impassioned defense of its builders. "What was needed in his position," Governor Pennypacker wrote of architect Joseph Huston, "was not a bookkeeper or the cashier of a bank, but an artist and poet, with imagination enough to design, with enthusiasm enough to carry his inspiration into execution, and with none too keen an appreciation of the importance of mere money."

The Capitol scandal dragged on for years. Then and now it illustrates the power as well as the corruption of the Pennsylvania Republican machine. Cost overruns in the furnishing of the State Capitol were only one of a series of scandals that rocked the state Republican Party in the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century. These did little, however, to diminish the power of the state's Republican bosses. The gubernatorial election of 1910 provided yet another example of the boss rule in Pennsylvania.

In 1910, the Democrats planned to nominate Williamstown lawyer Cyrus Munson, who withdrew at the last moment on grounds of health. Former State Treasurer William Berry, who had exposed the Capitol frauds, was the next logical candidate, but the Democrats, at the secret suggestion of Senator Boies Penrose, the infamous boss of the state Republican Party, instead chose unknown State Senator Webster Grim of Doylestown. When word of the deal leaked out, angry delegates bolted the party and joined with progressive Republicans to nominate Berry on the third-party Keystone Party ticket.
Interior color photograph
Ceiling of the Capitol Rotunda, Harrisburg, PA, 2007.
Exterior park, junk surrounds the foot of the statue.
Boies Penrose Statue, Harrisburg, PA, October 6, 2009.

To represent the Republican Party, Penrose had selected a friend, Pittsburgh congressmanmarker John Tener, who barely edged out Berry in the general election, while Grim received a mere 13 percent of the votes. Only after the election did the story leak out that Penrose had promised Munson a federal judgeship if he withdrew from the election. The resulting outcry was so great President William Howard Taft refused to appoint him.

Today, the State Capitol stands as a symbol of Pennsylvania's former wealth, and of the power of its once mighty Republican party. Once prominent in the history of religious and political freedom, Pennsylvania in the late 1800s operated under a political system that served the interests of business and that was arguably as corrupt as any in the nation. In 1906, the State Capitol stood in solitary splendor. Today it is the center, but only a part of the "Capitol Complex" that houses the state government in Harrisburg.

During the twentieth century, public service and the bureaucracy it requires have supplemented the state legislature as the focus of government spending and activity. Similarly, the ornate Capitol is surrounded by relatively plain buildings, illustrating that the state's colorful political history is now less important to citizens than the day-to-day functions performed by their salaried civil servants.

In 1919 the state legislature allocated funds for construction of a statue of Boies Penrose, their now aging and infirm leader. The commission went to Philadelphia sculptor Samuel Murray, who because of other commitments and his own poor health failed to complete the sculpture until 1929, eight years after Penrose's death. In September 1930, the nine-foot statue, standing on a seven-foot granite base was dedicated on the grounds on the south side of the Capitol, where it still stands today. Observing that the sculptor had portrayed Penrose with one hand in his pocket, one bystander quipped that it was the only time Penrose ever had his hand in his own pocket.
Back to Top