Friday, June 7, 2019

The Tennessee State Capitol Building: Then and Now

By Michelle Shocklee

Being a fairly new resident of Tennessee, I'm enjoying learning the history of the state, the people, and the fascinating places that hold so many interesting stories. Just last weekend on Memorial Day, my husband and I visited some Civil War sites as well as an old plantation house where General Hood set up his command during the Battle of Nashville. 

Because the state capitol building makes a cameo in my new historical novel (publishing date TBA), I've wanted to visit it. So after we enjoyed a couple of fabulous burgers in downtown Nashville, we zipped over to walk the capitol grounds. 

First, a little history:

Tennessee became the 16th state of the Union on June 1, 1796. Over the years, the capital was at various times located in Murfreesboro, Knoxville, Kingston, and Nashville. Situated on the banks of the Cumberland River, Nashville began as Fort Nashborough in 1779 and was eventually incorporated as the City of Nashville in 1806. It was actually the capital of Tennessee twice. The first time was from 1812-1817. In 1826, it once again became the capital of the State of Tennessee.

Nashville was chosen as the permanent capital in 1843 after its citizens raised $30,000 to purchase Cambell's Hill for the state office. Work began in 1845 when a building site was selected and the state legislature appointed Philadelphia architect William Strickland to design and oversee construction of the Greek Revival building. The cornerstone was laid on July 4 of that same year. Commercial, convict, and slave labor were used in the project. Sadly, Strickland died on April 7, 1854, before the building was completed. His funeral was held in the Hall of Representatives and he was entombed in the north portico. Work continued under the guidance of his son, W. Francis Strickland. The last stone was laid in the tower cupola on July 21, 1855, and the building was at last completed by Harvey Akeroyd in 1859. Work on the grounds, however, continued up until the outbreak of the Civil War. As a result of the war, the final two gasoliers for the stair and the east lobby of the legislative floor were never ordered.

Union Army cannons on the capitol grounds, circa 1862
In February 1862, Nashville was taken by Union troops and held for the remainder of the war. Cannons were positioned on the capitol grounds, although no battles were ever fought near the building. The Battle of Nashville took place two miles to the south in December 1864, leaving the beautiful building safe while hundreds of men lost their lives. Such a sad time in our county.

In the picture below, I'm standing in approximately the same location as the cannons of 1862!

An interesting and little-known fact is that after the Civil War, in the lowlands north and west of Capitol Hill, a slum neighborhood called Hell’s Half Acre developed. Sprawling areas of shacks and lean-to's provided residences to numerous African-Americans. The area received its name as a result of many fights and pistol shootings that occurred during the 1870s and 1880s. Perpetrators could not be punished as the area was outside Nashville city limits at that time. Line Street became known as the primary thoroughfare for saloons offering bootleg whiskey, gambling, and brothels in the neighborhood, all in view of the capitol.

In 1954, Mayor West initiated the Capitol Hill Redevelopment Project. By the time the project was completed, 96 acres of slums had been cleared.

The Tennessee State Capitol building surrounded by the neighborhood of Hell's Half Acre

The capitol building, one of 12 state capitols that does not have a dome, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and named a National Historic Landmark in 1971. It truly is a beautiful building and well worth a visit if you're ever in Nashville!

In 1880, thousands of spectators gather on Capitol Hill for the dedication of
the statue of Andrew Jackson. YES, those are people on the rooftop!

Your turn! Do you enjoy visiting state capitols? If so, which is your favorite? I'm a little partial to the round capitol building in Santa Fe, New Mexico since that's where I was born and raised, but I've also lived in Oklahoma City and Austin, Texas!

Michelle Shocklee is the award-winning author of The Planter's Daughter and The Widow of Rose Hill. Her historical novella set in the New Mexico Territory is included in The Mail-Order Brides Collection. Michelle and her husband of thirty-two years make their home in Tennessee. Connect with her at


Widowed during the war, Natalie Ellis finds herself solely responsible for Rose Hill plantation. When Union troops arrive with a proclamation freeing the slaves, all seems lost. How can she run the plantation without slaves? In order to save her son’s inheritance she strikes a deal with the arrogant, albeit handsome, Colonel Maish. In exchange for use of her family’s property, the army will provide workers to bring in her cotton crop. But as her admiration for the colonel grows, a shocking secret is uncovered. Can she trust him with her heart and her young, fatherless son?


  1. Thanks for the post! I've only visited two capitols. I don't have a favorite yet!

  2. I think the Iowa capitol building is beautiful. I've never seen it in person but during the 2016 presidential caucuses Fox News featured it because of it's beautiful architecture.

  3. By the way I've been to the Wisconsin one in Madison and have seen the Illinois one in Springfield.