It's funny the things you see everyday but never stop to really see. I can't tell you how many hundreds of times I've walked and driven by our Capitol. Heck, I've even taken quite a few pictures of it there on Union Square and then one day it hit me... You really can't see it!? Maybe at the corners and yes, from Fayetteville Street but not from what I consider the most prominent view down Hillsborough Street nor many other angles. Without looking for pictures, I had a sense that other state houses I have ever seen have a very prominent perch. On a hill. Or at the end of a grand boulevard. Certainly visible. But ours shares space with oaks here in the City of Oaks. I felt for sure that the original idea was a beautiful grassy space or a formal French garden. Maybe even a small fountain or two. Certainly these trees wouldn't fit with the landscape architecture ideals of the 19th century would they? With these questions, I contacted State Capitol Research Historian Tiffiana Honsinger. Her answer unveiled the true history of our Capitol's grounds over the past 2+ centuries and I found it a most interesting story. Many, many thanks to Tiffiana for taking the time to share this as well as including photos from the North Carolina State Archives (below.)
The landscaping here has a long history beginning when Union Square and the old State House were created between 1794 and 1796. No known site plans exist from this period, but we do know that in 1796 the Square was enclosed with a wooden post, plank, and rail fence with entrances at the four ordinal points. Additionally, many of the trees on site were left in situ during and after the construction of the State House.
Little else is known about the earliest landscape here. Henry Clay, while advocating for a new fence in 1844, mentioned "glorious old oaks" and the "beautiful environs" of the Capitol building, while a contemporary newspaper article said the site "contained more than 150 virile and healthy oaks with an intermingling of hickory trees." (Raleigh isn't called "The City of Oaks" for nothing.) The earliest landscaping was indeed a half-hazard forest of volunteer oaks and hickory trees with swept dirt paths. There were no grass or lawn areas. Of course, the Square also housed, not only the State House (burned in 1831) and later the Capitol (completed 1840), but a bell tower, a woodshed, outhouses, an arsenal, a separate building for the Governor's Office, one for the Treasurer's Office, and one for the Secretary of State. This is in addition to the carriage way and horse paths that crisscrossed the grounds.
In 1844, Henry Clay and several members of the General Assembly held a mock legislative session calling for funds for an iron railing enclosing "this great Temple...and these glorious old Oaks." Two years later, an iron fence was installed with gates at the four ordinal entrances.
In 1857, Governor Bragg commissioned William Henry Hamilton, an English born landscaper living in Raleigh, to improve the grounds. Hamilton drafted the first true grounds plan, which included symmetrical walks, lawn areas and 4 small flower beds. The statue of George Washington, cast by William Hubard after Antoine Houdons's original, was installed with a fence and terrace on the south side of the Capitol.
Union Square suffered neglect and landscape destruction during the Civil War. Townsfolk in Raleigh during the occupation lamented the fact that the grounds had become an encampment for Federal soldiers, as well as a hog and turkey run. In 1868, William Hamilton planted new trees and shrubs to replace plants damaged or lost during the conflict.
Incremental changes to the Hamilton plan for Union Square continued through the turn of the 20th century. The perimeter fence and remaining outbuildings were removed, allowing pedestrian access from the corners of the site. Steps were added at all entrances to the square, except the north Edenton Street side. The paths within the square became more uniform and the ornamental borders along the walks were removed. This grounds survey shows shade trees of various sizes spaced irregularly throughout the square.
During this period, several monuments were added to Union Square, including:
Confederate Monument, 1895
Zebulon Vance Monument, 1900
Worth Bagley Statue, 1907
Charles McIver Statue, 1912
Henry Lawson Wyatt Statue, 1912
Women of the Confederacy, 1914
Charles B. Aycock Monument, 1924
Unfortunately, these monuments were placed randomly about the grounds, interspersed with what remained of the original oaks and hickories, the Hamilton lawn segments, and intersecting dirt trails. In 1927, Governor McLean engaged the Olmsted Brothers firm to revise the design of Union Square as "a setting commensurate with the importance and dignity of the Capitol of the State." At the time, this nationally prominent landscape architectural firm was working on a project at Duke University and was involved with landscaping and planning for the US Capitol. They had also done the landscaping at Biltmore Estate, among others.
The plan, drafted by Percival Gallagher, introduced a new pattern of walks, including more curves and circular forms. Gallagher relocated existing monuments, organizing them symmetrically around the Capitol. Memorial Mall was added to the south grounds and a terraced area with fountains was constructed at the east entrance. His planting plan added a variety of canopy trees to the many existing trees, understory trees and shrubs, and he removed all but one of the flower beds.
This is where the current Unions Square landscape comes from. It is made largely of trees and lawn - a simplified version of the 1928 plan. Many of the existing trees include predate the Olmsted Brothers plan (from the Civil War and a few from before) and some 1928 plantings, as well as more recent additions of long leaf pines (1960s and 1990s) and the former State Christmas Tree.
As you can see, the current tree-scape is actually the most original thing about the Square,the paths, flower beds, and monuments all being later additions. We never had a French formal garden, though that would have been quite beautiful. In fact, due to the age of many of the trees, plans are being worked on for replacing the canopy trees--our youngest canopy trees are in the 60 year old range. Just this past year, we had to remove one White Oak, due to its age. And in 2008, one of the 1860s oaks came crashing down in a wind storm... Every single tree removed from the grounds does cause an upset, especially since many of them are so very old.
I've attached for your enjoyment two photographs of the grounds taken before the Civil War, shortly after the Capitol was finished. The first of these is of a man and a boy with an oxcart from the 1850s. This is actually taken on Hillsborough Street. It shows the 1846 iron fence (this fence was removed and now surrounds Raleigh's City Cemetery) as well as the "glorious old oaks" Henry Clay talked about. It's also a view of the building no longer afforded viewers on Hillsborough after the installation of the Confederate Monument in 1895. The second was taken from the northeast in 1861. In it you can see the brand new grass and walkways, as well as the old trees.
While I still wish we could see this historic structure a little better, it is great knowing that we have preserved the spirit of the original forested design. Interestingly, on a recent visit, I also learned that while the Greek Revival style is quite symmetrical, the original "front" is the East facade facing New Bern Avenue with the servants entering and carrying firewood through the Hillsborough Street doorway. Also, the story of presidential candidate Henry Clay in Raleigh mentioned above is worth checking out as well. While here he wrote his historically significant "Raleigh Letter" which may have cost him the election.