The Old State House History

House of Representatives, Old State House

The Old State House was the first permanent capitol building in Dover, Delaware. Begun in 1787 and completed by May 1791, this Georgian-style structure was originally home to both state and Kent County governments.

The first floor of the Old State House features an 18th century-style courtroom while the second floor features the former chambers of the state legislature. The House chamber contains notable portraits by Thomas Sully of Commodores Jacob Jones and Thomas Macdonough, heroes from the First State who served in the War of 1812. The Senate chamber houses an imposing portrait of George Washington painted by Denis A. Volozan.

Notable architectural details include the gilt sunflower ceiling sham, and the grand, dual stairways, known as a geometrical staircase, that served as the portal of entry to the state’s legislative chambers. The geometrical staircase, designed by John Howe in 1791, was reproduced by restoration architects based on information derived from original documents and physical evidence found in the building.

Over the course of 224 years of continuous governmental use, the Old State House had undergone a number of structural and stylistic changes that had radically altered its original 18th century appearance. These changes included the addition, over time, of a number of wings to accommodate increasing governmental needs, and the Victorian-style remodeling of the building’s exterior in 1873. In 1933, the General Assembly re-located from the Old State House to its new, more spacious, home in Legislative Hall, and in 1976, the Old State House was restored to its original 18th century appearance as part of Delaware’s bicentennial celebration commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

The most recent restoration of The Old State House took place between December 2005 and December 2007. Funding for the $3.5 million restoration was provided by appropriations from the Delaware General Assembly. Restoration activities included re-pointing of exterior walls, replacement of exterior windows and doors, replacement of the roof, plaster wall repairs, floor restoration, re-painting of the building’s interior based on research of historic color schemes, upgrades to the electrical and plumbing systems, installation of a new HVAC system, installation of equipment that makes the building fully accessible to people with disabilities, and installation of a fire suppression system.

Located on the historic Green in Dover, the Old State House has served as a focal point in the state’s civic life for over two centuries and continues to hold a special place in the eyes of Delawareans and visitors alike.

Portrait of George Washington

Portrait of George Washington by Denis A. Volozan, oil on canvas, 7' by 5', 1802.
Portrait of George Washington by Denis A. Volozan, oil on canvas, 7′ by 5′, 1802.

After the death of George Washington in December 1799, the Delaware General Assembly, immediately upon convening in January 1800, resolved that a portrait be commissioned “in consequence of the eventful and ever to be lamented death of the late illustrious chief and friend of America General George Washington.” Denis Alexander Volozan (born Lyon, France, 1765; died Philadelphia, PA 1820) was engaged to paint the portrait with the instruction that Washington was to appear as large as life. Volozan’s painting was one of the very first and largest of portraits to be commissioned (26 days) after Washington’s death.

Volozan had recently arrived in America from France, settling in Philadelphia in 1799 where he established a reputation as a neoclassical painter and architect, and where he made the acquaintance of a number of artists including the noted portraitist Gilbert Stuart. At that time, dozens of portraits and likenesses of Washington had been created in every corner of the newly formed nation. In 1796, Stuart himself had painted an iconic likeness of Washington known as “The Athenaeum” which is now featured on the United States one dollar bill. As it is unlikely that Volozan had ever met Washington, it is probable that he used likenesses painted by other artists, such as the one created by Stuart, when the time came for him to complete his own portrait of the Revolutionary War leader and first president of the United States.

Volozan’s finished portrait, measuring seven feet by five feet, was completed in 1802 and transported aboard the sloop Dove from Philadelphia to Dover Landing (located on the St. Jones River just east of the present-day Legislative Hall). From there it was delivered by horse and wagon to the newly built Delaware State House (1791) where it was installed first in the chamber of the House of Representatives and later in the Senate chamber where it is currently displayed. The total cost was $513.03, including $400 for the painting and $93 for an elegant frame.

Since its installation, the painting has been repaired or restored seven times beginning in 1836; and again in 1915, 1920, 1966, 1968, 1976 for the Bicentennial; and finally in 2007 when both the painted surface and gilded Victorian frame were repaired in conjunction with the most recent restoration of The Old State House.

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