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What is a State House?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A state house is a building that serves as the seat of government for a US state. Typically, state houses are actually complexes of buildings that house an array of government offices with a formal building, known as the capitol building, at the center of the complex. These facilities are open to the public and many offer guided tours for people who visit their state capitols. Some states require advance reservations for tours, and arrangements can often be made through the website of the legislature or the state's governor.

The state house has very old origins and in several states, the state house actually predates the formation of the United States, dating to an era when the early colonists needed seats of government to meet, pass laws, and address a variety of political matters. State houses are formal buildings designed to house both the senate and house of representatives for the state. The governor often has offices in the state house, as do other key government officials. Space for staff and supporters is also provided and the complex of buildings can house hundreds of employees.

Because state houses are symbols of government, the building where the legislature meets tends to be highly formal. Classical architecture featuring columns is common, as are gilded domes, ornately carved exteriors, and other decorative features like marble floors. Inside the state house, symbols associated with the state are usually integrated into the décor. Outside, the state flag is flown along with the United States flag, and other standards may be flown as well at different times of the year. Many state houses are historic landmarks.

Security is variable in state houses. Security guards are usually present and the buildings may use metal detectors and other security measures to protect the occupants. There are concerns about the impact of terrorist attacks on state governments in some states and many have disaster plans in place that include responses at the state house to protect legislators and other key officials.

People who are interested in visiting the seat of a state's government may want to make arrangements to visit while the legislature is in session so that they can see lawmakers at work. Many representatives and senators like opportunities to meet with constituents and if alerted ahead of time, they can set aside time for a meeting with visitors in their offices. It is advisable to call at least several days ahead, as many lawmakers have crowded schedules.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By bigjim — On Oct 26, 2011

It is an age-old argument whether or not to have monuments to government, or to save the money. For example, the City of Detroit always painted the water tower at the Detroit Zoo with the mayor's name. When Dennis Archer got elected, he decided to leave the old mayor's name up there because it would cost money to paint over it and he didn't care if his name was on a water tower.

That is a small example, but it does illustrate the thought process. Also, I would imagine you can gain some points as a "man of the people" if you skip the expense, especially if you make it look like you are using the money for a more noble purpose.

By BigManCar — On Oct 25, 2011

@jmc88 - I can see what you mean, although it does bear remembering that a lot of the lavish state houses are pretty old, and were built to be lavish way back then.

Now, some states were a lot more practical and only went for the glamorous look later on, but some of them were built that way from the start.

That is precisely why some of them are so elegant. You can't even get that level of workmanship and those same materials anymore, it is a lost art. When the building finally has to be replaced or have a massive overhaul, the craftsmanship is gone forever.

By horsebite — On Oct 24, 2011

@cardsfan27 - I enjoy going to my state house too, but it does make you wonder if spending that much money on a grand building was such a good idea. Definitely, if they proposed a major renovation or the building of a new, ostentatious building today, I would vote against it if I had the chance. It just seems that with so many things competing for everyone's money, and with budget cuts and everyone in crisis mode, that the expense is a bit much.

That said, I am somewhat of a historian and I'm glad the building is there. I guess that is a classic argument, whether to make a historical, impressive building to act as a kind of symbol for the state government, or just save the money for something else. I'm sure that both sides of the argument have had a lot to say about it at various times.

By matthewc23 — On Oct 24, 2011

The best thing I always liked about state houses were that they usually seemed like a type of museum to me. Most of the ones that I have visited have some type of historical artifact at nearly every turn. The one I visited in Illinois had several statues depicting the state's history as well as several portraits and inscriptions depicting important events.

The best thing I liked about visiting state houses is that I get to see the legislators debate and decide on a variety of issues. As a tax paying citizen I like to see what they are debating and be able to see first hand exactly what the government is doing to decide and solve issues.

By jmc88 — On Oct 24, 2011

@TreeMan - I would imagine that the legislators of the past would look at the state houses today and think of how much money, most of which being tax payer money, was put into building and re-constructing the state houses.

I, as well as many other people, feel like that it is a good thing to have nice, decorated state houses, but it is something that costs so much money and becomes a burden on taxpayers sometimes.

I remember hearing that in Illinois the portrait of a former Governor alone cost the taxpayers of the state tens of thousands just for one portrait. Imagine the amount of money it takes to build or reconstruct an elaborate state house.

By TreeMan — On Oct 23, 2011

@cardsfan27 - I have to agree with you on the statement of applicability over decoration. I have visited several state houses over the years and have noticed that the older state houses follow a similar trend. The old state houses were usually simply used for reasons of meeting together as a legislature to discuss issues and did not really care about what their building looked like, only that it was a dry place they could continually meet.

Over the years is seems like the state houses across the country became more and more extravagant. This may simply be a changing of the times and the adoption of the idea that they need to have a nice place to meet in and present themselves, but I would like to know what legislators back in the 1800's would think about the state houses today and all the decoration.

By cardsfan27 — On Oct 22, 2011

I live in Illinois and we have had our State Houses remodeled or re-built five or six times in the past.

The old state house in Vandalia is just a simple type of place and is just a really simple looking type of building that is very bland, open spaced, and not elaborate whatsoever. Today when I look at the current state house it is a real sight to see with all the existing artwork and the portraits of past Governors and state leaders.

I greatly enjoy going to the various state capitols and seeing how they evolved over time. I can see that back in the old days they were not very creative with their designs and probably sought applicability over design and decoration.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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