Wisconsin Capitols | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Wisconsin Capitols

EnlargeWisconsin capitol dome with Wisconsin flag and U.S. flag.

Current Wisconsin Capitol

Madison, Wisconsin. The gold "Wisconsin" statue sculpted by Daniel Chester French sits atop the dome. Source: Legislative Reference Bureau

During its history, Wisconsin has had five capitols; the first two were territorial, temporary, capitols. The current Wisconsin State Capitol, in Madison, Wisconsin, sits in the center of the Capitol Park, located atop a hilltop on an isthmus formed by lakes Monona and Mendota. The Wisconsin State Capitol houses the Wisconsin legislature, the Wisconsin Supreme Court and the Office of the Governor.

Exterior of council house building.

First Territorial Capitol, 1836

Belmont, Wisconsin. Council House of the first Wisconsin Territorial Legislature when it met at Belmont in 1836. View the original source document: WHI 10476

First Territorial Capitol Established at Belmont, Wisconsin

The first territorial capitol, located at Old Belmont, in present-day Lafayette County, was built by James Atchison out of prefabricated pieces shipped from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The shipment traveled down the Ohio and up the Mississippi Rivers by steamboat to Galena, Illinois, where the lumber was transferred to wagons and hauled the remaining 30 miles to Belmont. The building, measuring 25 feet by 40 feet, was two stories high and was lathed with split oak covered with plaster on the inside, making a very substantial frame building for the time and place.

This building was rented to the territory for use by the first territorial legislature lawmakers, who huddled in the cold during the fall and winter of 1836 to build the framework that would evolve into the state of Wisconsin 12 years later. They met from October 25 to December 9, 1836, put 42 laws on the books, established a judicial system, called for roads and railroads, and firmly established Wisconsin's territorial government.

The first order of business was the selection of the site of the permanent capitol. After a complicated and contentious debate, Madison was chosen, with Burlington Iowa selected as the site of a second temporary location until 1839, by which time a permanent capitol would be completed in Madison. After the legislature adjourned, the First Temporary Capitol building was used a home and later as a barn until it was purchased by the state in 1919. Later it was restored and became one of Wisconsin's 12 historic sites and museums. Learn more history and how you can plan your visit to First Capitol, a Wisconsin historic site.

Second Territorial Capitol Established in Burlington, Iowa

The second temporary capitol had a very short life. Major Jerry Smith, of Burlington, Iowa built the new building during the summer and fall of 1837. The building of the permanent capitol in Madison began in the same time frame. On December 12, 1837 halfway through the session, the temporary Burlington capitol burned down. Throughout 1838 the legislature met in two separate existing buildings in Burlington. In 1838 the U.S. Congress created the Territory of Iowa, which forced the Wisconsin legislature to move to Madison sooner than intended.

EnlargeLithograph of Wisconsin State Capitol building.

First State Capitol in Madison, 1855

Madison, Wisconsin. Sketch drawn by George Harrison of the Wisconsin State Capitol, the third capitol in the state, the first Capitol in Madison. WHI 6969

First State Capitol Established in Madison

The first state Capitol, located at the site of the present building in Madison, Wisconsin, was started in the summer of 1837 under the supervision of James D. Doty, John F. O'Neil, and A.A. Bird.

The building, to be completed by September 1839 at a cost near $40,000 was not finished in all detail until sometime after 1848, and the final cost was considerably in excess of $60,000. The stone used in the building came from the Maple Bluff are and the lumber was cut within a few blocks of Capitol Park.

Since this building was not ready in time, the first legislative session in Madison was held in the American Hotel, located at the north corner of East Washington Avenue and North Pinckney Street. Later meetings of this session were held in the unfinished capitol, but the cold weather and the condition of the building forced an adjournment.

EnlargeWorkmen and equipment hoisting materials into place during contruction of the Wisconsin State Capitol building.

Wisconsin State Capitol Under Construction, 1869

Madison, Wisconsin. Dome under construction. When it was finished, the cast iron dome was painted white. View the original source document: WHI 23183

Second State Capitol Brings Expansion in 1869

The second state capitol was born in confusion and died in a fire. The confusion started when the legislature decided that the old capitol was no longer adequate for the needs of the growing state. On February 28, 1857, the legislature passed an act providing for the enlargement and improvement of the old building; at least, that's what everyone thought the act did. Someone, however, thought differently and, when the 1858 legislature assembled, they found that a new state house had been started. This provoked a sharp discussion after which the legislature decided that perhaps a new building was a good idea after all. The new capitol, built in sections so that the old building could remain in use, was finished in all details by the end of 1869.

In 1882, the constant expansion of state government made it necessary for two wings to be added. One of these collapsed during construction killing four men and creating a furor in the legislature which promptly began a futile investigation. The problem of space led to the appointment of a commission to investigate the possibility of moving the Supreme Court and State Law Library out of the capitol. 

EnlargeFlames shooting out of the Wisconsin State Capitol in 1904.

Fire at the Wisconsin State Capitol, 1904

Madison, Wisconsin. Postcard drawing depicting the fire of February 26-27, 1904, that destroyed most of the building. View the original source document: WHI 23250

1904 Fire

On February 27, 1904, the second Wisconsin State Capitol, a building with a state-of-the-art firefighting system, was destroyed by fire.

A gas jet in the closet on the second floor next to the assembly post office set fire to the woodwork at about 2:30 a. m, on February 27, 1904. Madison firefighters, with the help of two Milwaukee companies, fought the blaze for 18 hours. Governor La Follette personally directed the saving of documents, correspondence files, and the precious law library. Lost to the flames were the Grand Army records and the stuffed form of "Old Abe," Wisconsin's Civil War Eagle. The loss was estimated at between $800,000 and $1 million dollars, but no one died in the fire.

Only temporary repairs were made on the capitol after the fire. In the fall of 1906 construction began on the present, third, state capitol. The old capitol was demolished by sections as progress on the new statehouse advanced. Two workers lost their lives during the construction of the $7.5 million edifice. One worker met his death when he was hurled to the ground as a row of stone fell from the top of the west end of the west wing. Another fell from the top of the dome to the bottom in the central portion after the iron work had been erected. As far as the toll of human life went, it was more costly to build the new capitol than it was to burn the old one.

There are only seven known pictures of the interior of the second capitol. All are of the legislative chambers. There are no images of the governor's office, the room from which Robert M. La Follette, Sr., launched Wisconsin's Progressive reform movement.

On February 27, 1904, before the commission could develop plans for capitol space planning, the capitol caught fire. The fire swept the entire building except the north wing, doing extensive damage. The commission decided to make temporary repairs to the old building and secure plans for a third capitol. Piece by piece the old structure was torn down to make way for another new capitol. View documents about the 1904 capitol fire.

EnlargeElevated view of the exterior of the current state capitol building.

Wisconsin State Capitol, 1920

Madison, Wisconsin. View the original source document: WHI 7052

Third State Capitol in Madison Erected

After the second Madison capitol building burned in 1904, various plans were explored for the Capitol. In 1905, the Capitol Commission established a program for the new building, requiring that it be in the form of a cross, with the four equal wings of the building radiating to the corners of the square.

The prominent New York firm of George B. Post and Sons was awarded the contract for the building's design. Plans for the present or third capitol were approved late in 1905 and, in the fall of 1906, ground was broken for the construction of the West Wing.

Because of financial limitations and the need for immediate office space to house state government employees, the construction of the new building was carried out in five phases over eleven years, emphasizing building one wing at a time. This allowed the old building to remain in use as long as possible. The last section of the old Capitol was removed in 1913 and the massive dome crowning the building was completed in 1915. The structure, finished in all details in 1917, cost $7,258,763.75 including the construction of the state heating plant and removal of the old building. There was no dedication of this capitol and there is no record that a corner stone was ever laid. The current Capitol building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2001.

Capitol Restoration and Renovation Completed in 2002

The current Capitol recently experienced a 14-year renovation and restoration project. The project was performed wing by wing as per the original construction of the Capitol. The renovation started during 1988 and was completed during 2002 at a cost of $158.8 million. The purpose of the project was to convert the Capitol into a modern working building, while restoring and preserving its original 1917 appearance.

Timeline of Wisconsin Capitol Buildings

Below is a brief chronology of the buildings that have served as Wisconsin State Capitols.

First Territorial Capitol - Belmont
  • 1836 – First Territorial Capitol Constructed. The territorial government meets in Belmont, Wisconsin, selects Madison as the territorial capital, and names Burlington, Iowa, as the temporary capital.
Second Territorial Capitol - Burlington
  • 1837 – Second Territorial Capitol Constructed. The territorial government meets in Burlington, Iowa, as the temporary capital. The legislators create new counties; new banks were chartered. The progressive rhythm of this process was interrupted suddenly and briefly on the night of December 12, when the Capitol was razed by an accidental fire.
First State Capitol - Madison
  • 1837 – First State Capitol Begins Construction. Construction begins on the Madison Capitol while the Legislature meets in Burlington.
  • 1838 – The Legislature arrives in Madison with the Capitol unfinished. Locals refer to the Capitol's odd-looking tin dome as "Doty's Washbowl."
  • 1848 – Wisconsin becomes a state. The Capitol building is completed, but its inadequacies, one of which is its fire danger, are soon apparent.
  • 1857 – "Enlargement" of the Capitol is authorized, and August Kutzbock and Samuel H. Donnel are hired as architects. The Legislature decides on phased replacement of old Capitol by building the new building around the old.
Second State Capitol - Madison
  • 1859 – Second State Capitol Begins Construction. The first phase, the East Wing, is completed. Slowed by events of the Civil War, the West Wing is not completed until 1862.
  • 1863 – Old State Capitol is demolished, work begins on the North and South wings, and construction of the central rotunda begins on the foundations of the old Capitol.
  • 1866 – Stephen Vaughn Shipman is hired to replace Kutzbock-Donnel's design for the dome with a design similar to the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
  • 1869 – Second Capitol dome completed
  • 1873 – Park improvements recommended by H.W.S. Cleveland including an iron fence and stone gateways enhance the dignity of Capitol
  • 1881 – Old Abe, the eagle of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry who resided in the Capitol basement, dies and is stuffed for exhibition
  • 1883 – Additions are constructed to the North and South wings. Collapse of the South Wing during construction kills five workmen
  • 1900 – State Historical Society moves from the South Wing to a building on State Street, citing the need for space and fireproof quarters.
  • 1903 – Capitol Improvement Commission appointed to study expansion of the second Capitol. Legislature allows private insurance on the Capitol to lapse
  • 1904 – February 26-27 Gas jet ignites a newly-varnished Capitol ceiling. An empty University reservoir permits the fire to spread, destroying all of the building except the North Wing. Loss is estimated at between $800,000 and one million dollars.
  • 1905 – Legislature authorizes a new building commission to plan an entirely new Capitol building.
Third State Capitol - Madison
  • 1909 – Third State Capitol in Madison Begins Construction. First phase of the new building, the West Wing, is completed. The dome of second state Capitol is demolished.
  • 1913 – North Wing of the second state Capitol is demolished.
  • 1917 – Third state Capitol is completed.

Learn More

See a collection of detailed images of the capitol taken during the late 20th century.

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