Spectacular Legislatures: All 50 state capitol buildings, ranked


Credit: Corey Seeman

The Michigan State Capitol building was made in 1878 by Elijah E. Myers. He would go on to make the Colorado and Texas state capitols, leading to the three being very similar in architectural style.

Elias Nagel-Bennett, Copy Editor

Driving to Lansing on I-96, the dome of the Michigan Capitol building stands out in stark contrast to the skyline of the city. The Lansing State Capitol, is not alone: it is one among 49 others, each designed and built not only to house the state legislature, but also to represent the state itself. 

However, not all buildings are made equal, and when comparing state capitol buildings, this is extremely clear. Below is my ranking of each state’s modern legislative building, with everything from aesthetic appeal, how impressive the architecture is, originality, interior design and how well it represents the state. Before going into the ranking, I should clarify a term- Generic Capitol Disorder, or GCD, is a condition that afflicts many state capitol buildings and occurs when their design is extremely similar to the federal capitol building. 


#50: Alaska

It’s hardly a shock to see Alaska in the bottom spot of the list. Its capitol building could hardly be described as awe-inspiring, it hardly inspires anything. The entire complex is barely distinguishable from an office building and even the nearby Old Anchorage City Hall is more appropriate as a major government building than the current State Capitol. 


#49: North Dakota

North Dakota barely makes it above Alaska because it at least stands out from the surrounding city. Despite being fairly large and having some decent greenery, it completely fails the Art Deco style and ends up looking more like a Brutalist, or Soviet concrete complex. Its disjointedness only emphasizes the failure of North Dakota to commission a proper capital building. 


#48:  Nevada

Similar to how Las Vegas overshadows the capital city of Reno, Nevada’s capital building is overshadowed by the grandeur of the Strip. Looking more like a tiny colonial legislature of pre-independence years than a modern structure, its sheer underwhelming nature puts it at 48th. 


#47: Louisiana

The only thing separating Louisiana from North Dakota is a slightly more distinct profile and a passing interior that saves this bland, concrete tower from being ranked even lower. Given the unique fusion of cultures in Louisiana, this building is a particular disappointment in the face of so much opportunity. 


#46: Delaware

When seeing the Delaware capitol building, one does not think of the hallowed halls of government but instead of a retirement home. Though unique, Delaware’s resolute persistence in using such an old building sets it far below most of the other east coast states. 


#45: Florida

Credit: Maciej Lulko

States cannot get over boring concrete spires in the midst of empty development, can they? Florida, at least, incorporates its road system in an interesting way, but beyond this, has so little to set it apart, landing it in the bottom five of this list. 


#44: North Carolina

This squat, mostly gray building is very underwhelming. Its decorations, namely a pair of cannons and a statue, provide a nice exterior, but the interior and core architecture are very generic and have little going for them. Its lack of distinctive flair makes it very difficult to enjoy. 


#43: Oregon

Oregon does a single feature very well, that being its crowning statue depicting a settler of the state. Famous for its pioneer nature, the building abandons this flair in the rest of its design and despite a large size, accomplishes very little and accidentally looks more intimidating than inspiring. 


#42: South Carolina

Scarcely beating out its twin, South Carolina is the first on this list with the generic capital appearance. A number of columns at the front, a rotunda or tower in the center and two wings for Congress. Though it looks like the classic shape, it imitates the style the worst out of all on this list, though the bronze dome top is interesting. 


#41: Montana

Montana gains most of its score from having an interesting pair of statues that form a distinctive sense of perspective on approach, but the bland stone chosen and generally underwhelming exterior only serve to match the inside. 


#40: Arizona

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Arizona is rather interesting, as it looks more like a Caribbean style manor. Though the state has some Spanish roots, celebrating a more modern influence would make its unique nature more interesting. Overall though, too little to boost it into the 30s. 


#39: Maryland

 Maryland makes it to the 39th spot because of a successful use of the more classic colonial style, in sharp contrast to Delaware. Its own rotunda is very impressive, as it helped to inspire the national capitol building. However, the lack of any real grandeur or stand out features makes it mediocre. 


#38: New Jersey

New Jersey’s capitol building is small and relatively appealing but feels disjointed and doesn’t stand out in the city. If the building was simply larger and had a bit more focus, it could really rise up the ranks. I do give special points for its neat integration into the city at large though. 


#37: New Hampshire

New Hampshire is a total improvement on many of the other small, Greek-style capital buildings, using a nicely shaped golden rotunda to bring together the whole building. Once again, it’s just somewhat bland and lacks anything to differentiate it from the other mid-range capitol buildings. 


#36: Oklahoma

Oklahoma’s state capitol is a near carbon copy of the standard style—it looks as if someone took the capitol building in DC, turned it a light brown and dropped it into the plains. Luckily for Oklahoma, it’s a good design, but in the context of state capitol buildings, being so bland docks just about all originality points. 


#35: Vermont

Vermont not only has major scenery points, but a tight design as well. It would make it further up if the building wasn’t asymmetrical, and if the building overall had more features, inside and outside. 


#34: Massachusetts

A bronze dome and red brick makes Massachusetts one of the most unique capitol buildings, in terms of color scheme and palette, and its style is charming—but not stunning. Massachusetts lacks any kind of punch, and suffers from eastern seaboard syndrome – too small, too underwhelming. 


#33: Maine

Other than its copious use of the American flag, Maine is an unremarkable state capitol. A scaled down version of the federal building, nothing all too strange or bad. The rotunda is rather small too, which docks some consistency points if it’s trying to model itself after the original. 


#32: Alabama

The Alabama capitol is better suited as a courthouse than a legislature, but it’s still a nice building. The lack of a distinctively grand style and the incorporation of a courthouse knocks it down on the list, as well as the rather boring scenery. 


#31: Washington

The inclusion of the state tree out front is a nice touch for Washington, such an arboreal state, but it suffers from the bland design of so many states. As we enter the middle of this list, I would like to remind the reader of a term: GCD, or Generic Capitol Disorder. GCD plagues many otherwise great capitol buildings and Washington has a bad case of it. 


#30: Ohio

Ohio’s strange and asymmetrical capitol building is highly unique, but not in a way specific to the state. With its green roof, stout and interesting stone design, Ohio’s capitol, similar to the state itself, is sandwiched near the middle. 


#29: Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania suffers from one fatal flaw: the dome. The building overall is just fine, it’s passable, big, and has a decent interior. It would be number 25 or 24, if only that dome wasn’t an ugly shade of green. There is no design feature present that can draw attention away from it, so the garish feature devastates the score, not to mention the GCD. 


#28: South Dakota

With a myriad of design features, South Dakota nears the middle of the pack. Two distinct houses for their legislature and a unique iron-carved dome gives it a silhouette unlike any other, but for all its architectural originality, the building has a bare-bones interior and has entirely bland, even ugly surroundings and landscaping. 


#27: Tennessee

Tennessee has a bit of a warped design, which normally is something that I have some interest in, but it doesn’t quite make the mark. The proportions are very different from the standard capitol building, which emphasizes length over width, while Tennessee has something closer to a square, and the placement of pillars being so strange could be nice, but combined with an awkward, flat-top rotunda just strikes me as odd, not auteur. 


#26: Virginia

One of the oldest state capitals shows its age by drawing heavy inspiration from Greco-Roman architecture. Though a lot of the buildings on this list do the same, Virginia stands uniquely as something closer to a temple than a house of legislature, but given the legacy of Greece as the birthplace of democracy, the inspiration is befitting. 


#25: Michigan

It breaks my heart to place my own state in the middle of the pack, but that’s ultimately what it is. Mid-range, average, unremarkable. Though its construction, particularly the methods used to mask common materials as more expensive ones, is interesting, it doesn’t make up for GCD and a bland color palette. 


#24: Wyoming

The first capitol to grace the upper end of the list, Wyoming, is the owner of a rather plain but lively structure, somewhat squashed-looking but nice nonetheless. The interior really sells this one, with stuffed bison and hunting-based decoration making a good fit for the vast and often empty Wyoming. 


#23: Rhode Island

This is a perfect example of a simple, but effective capitol building. It has a strange color of stone and suffers from a lack of stand-out features, but for a small state it’s an impressive building. As is often the case, GCD knocks it down points-wise, but its consistent quality is very nice. 


#22: New Mexico

What initially looks like a rather boring structure gives way to architectural genius: a completely round structure, the only state capitol that is a full circle. New Mexico’s state capitol is shaped like the Zia people’s symbol of the sun from above, celebrating not only the state’s native people but also its flag. Its somewhat monotonous appearance and mediocre interior drag down this truly unique structure, though I do award bonus points for the creative sculptures. 


#21: Nebraska

You may remember, near the top of this list, that I knocked a ton of state capitols for an ugly art deco/neo modern style of architecture. However, Nebraska is not only ahead of all of these early-20th century buildings, but transcends them by miles. The triumphant dome and concrete tower, which on other buildings seem artificial and uninspired, are augmented just enough to put this building barely below the top 20. 


#20: Wisconsin

When I see the Wisconsin capital, one word comes to mind: quaint. The building is impressive but not awe-inspiring in size: the landscaping feels warm and the interior is a classic sort of governmental style. The central entrance in front of the Rotunda is also very nice and gives a tone of self-certain humility that is proper for a state like Wisconsin. A real stand-out feature is the X shape, which helps it avoid being generic, but the much-lauded feature feels like it’s different just to be different—nothing about Wisconsin says “X-shaped” to me. 


#19: Colorado

The golden dome of Colorado is very well done, and the landscape surrounding the buildings is both evocative of the state and beautiful. The building at large is passing, suffering from GCD, but other than that the building is nice, save for the interruption of the exterior view by other buildings.


#18: Idaho

To start off with negatives, the Idaho capitol is rather squished-looking and suffers from GCD. But beyond that, the building projects the silent strength and hidden spirit that characterizes Idaho at large. The building is fairly humble, but some interesting details, such as Radisson-esque disks in the back, bump up its score. 


#17: Georgia

Georgia has a unique, parliamentary style of capitol building, with a nice dome and a size suitable for its importance. The statue at the top of the rotunda is very impressive and makes this building one of the more visually appealing sculpting-wise. It loses points due to being so close to the highway and having next to no landscaping. 


#16: Illinois

Mercifully not having to contend with the cityscape of Chicago, Illinois’ house of legislature is a stylish and somewhat chic structure. Especially among the more generic capitol buildings, the Illinois state house has a unique color palette and the use of unorthodox materials is pulled off well. I do think, however, that the lack of truly defining features, beyond color, keeps it out of the top 15. 


#15: Kansas

Some would say that Kansas’ capitol T-shaped structure is strange and breaks some unspoken covenant that government buildings are supposed to be wider rather than longer. I enjoy the style though, and with a combination of soaring roofs and a central rotunda, the building stands out from many other great plains states. 


#14: Kentucky

Another sufferer of GCD, Kentucky makes up those points by a combination of having a larger complex which compliments the core building, along with a beautiful red brick on the exterior paths. Settled amidst a residential neighborhood, the capitol building has the grace of vast fields with deep green leaves around it, and the particular columns of the Kentucky state building are aesthetically pleasing. 


#13: Missouri

Between the myriad of statues around and on the building, the stylized dome and a relief in the marble above the building’s entrance, Missouri has a unique exterior to compliment a nice interior. In particular, their House of Representatives and Senate are built well, and even the windows of the buildings vary nicely. 


#12: New York

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Another unique building, New York’s state capital does a great job of characterizing the state. It has a rich style, and projects the grandeur that not only represents the modern wealth of New York City, but the old wealth and legacy of the upstate. The building is famous for its central staircase, and more generally looks almost palatial from the outside. The building may be more fitting for the Queen of England than the governor of New York, but for the “empire state,” I’d say it makes sense. 


#11: Arkansas

When I see the entrance to the Arkansas capitol building, I think of the grand gates of an ancient city like Babylon or Jerusalem: power and majesty in a big central structure. The majesty of the building quickly bleeds away as the building goes left and right. If that power and energy that the central structure inspires was kept up, or if there was just a bit more aesthetically going on, it might be higher. Arkansas teaches a valuable lesson: a good capitol building needs not only splendor, but honest aesthetic appeal to be truly exceptional. 


#10: Indiana

The vast and multi-faceted design of Indiana has a trio of domes rather than one, making a layered feel come to the fore. The building really shows off how originality, even in basic elements, such as overall shape, can really show off the best features of a building. Indiana gets into the top 10 for being a substantial building that not only feels, but looks good. 


#9: Connecticut

I’m very divided on Connecticut’s state legislature; its dome and general stylings are very nice, and have a Georgian style that showcases its colonial roots. The building not only pleases aesthetically but looks almost like a church or temple — it overawes, even if compared to so many other capitol buildings, it’s relatively small. Connecticut uses every inch. I only feel that such a European style of construction and the general English aesthetic feels almost like a betrayal to Connecticut’s status as one of the 13 rebellious colonies. I can recognize, however, that the building was built long enough after the Revolutionary War that the wounds had long healed. 


#8: Mississippi

This capitol building looks like it suffers from GCD, as its core styling is very similar to many others. But when looking closer, the rounded chambers for the houses of government, the prominent entrance, and the beautiful statues and White-House esque curved columnage, make the Mississippi’s capital an amalgamation of great features along with a strong though somewhat tacky interior. 


#7: California

In contrast to the various shades of brown and beige, California builds its capitol in a brilliant and lively white, with black accents in its dome. The building uses palm trees around its base, something other sun belt states could look towards, and has a large public park behind it, giving a space for the people of the state to enjoy. The interior is a toss up, but it’s a new, chic decoration that works for me, as California is such a chic and forward-facing state. 


#6: Utah

Utah’s state capitol projects one thing to me: strength. The solid, wide foundation and extra-wide columns are not only made of unique, local material, rarely seen in state capitols. In conjunction with sweeping ceilings and wide arches, they make the building seem powerful. Complemented by a reflective pool and great series of murals in the central rotunda, Utah’s capitol building is the perfection of the basic capitol design. 


#5: Hawaii

One of the most unique buildings on the list, Hawaii’s capital is built in a square fashion, with columns ringing the structure, each one representing an island of the archipelago state. The building has a central plaza however, a view of the sky replacing the usual Rotunda. Hawaii uses a mix of native and early missionary architecture, a fusion of the state’s cultural legacies. The curved forward wall of the legislatures themselves also set this building apart from its competition. 


#4: West Virginia

West Virginia’s features are all around good: a nice and pragmatic structure and a stunning statue of Abraham Lincoln in the center of the capitol plaza, honoring the founding of the state as a breakaway from Virginia, aiming to rejoin the Union during the Civil War. What really stands out is its dome. The black, inscribed with gold, arcing towards the sky, is a sight that no other capitol building accomplishes quite as well. This is the peak of rotundas from the outside, and West Virginia is lucky to have such a transcendent feature. 


#3: Minnesota

When one thinks of early America, the image of the “City on a Hill” comes to mind, an idea proposed by John Winthrop when he had a vision of a new society that could serve as  a moral beacon for the world. The United States cannot truly claim to be this; as with all other nations, in the process of reaching maturity, it has dirtied its hands. However, seeing the Minnesota state capitol, whether the marble exterior, shining against the sun’s light, a myriad of statues depicting figures real and mythical or the three solemn gateways into its main structure, it is almost as if one can see that promised city: America, the mythical. This is only cemented by its interior, with hardwood, gold linings and paintings of the state’s proudest moments adorning many of its walls. To walk through the Minnesota capitol is to walk into an ideal, and for that I give it the best score of them all when it comes to the interior. 


#2: Texas

Despite its near-top placing, I know Texas’ failure to get the top spot is a surprise. Many rankings online list it as the best, owing to its massive size, unique multi-leveled look, and its inspiration drawing on the Alamo, a very important structure in Texan history. Indeed, Texas has the largest capitol building, eclipsing even the federal structure in size, living up to the state’s maxim, “everything’s bigger in Texas.” The inverted underground rotunda is a charming touch and preserves the grounds while giving a feature that no other capitol truly holds. The building also has an impressive interior, with a myriad of portraits and statues inside and outside the capitol. Texas is the best, save for one…


#1: Iowa

Most Americans do not think of Iowa outside the presidential primary season. It’s a state with a small population, amorphous borders, little distinctive save for vast fields of corn and lies in the middle of many other states like it. One thing stands out, truly stands out in the whole state — a towering structure above Des Moines, the Iowa capitol not only epitomizes the perfect legislative building, but puts Iowa above every other state architecturally. The Renaissance style is transported to the American Midwest without problem, and every detail is immaculate. The grounds of the building not only are built well and incorporate groundskeeping well, but flows into the city seamlessly, standing above the east village neighborhood triumphantly. 

Iowa recalls the greatest architecture of not only European, but American buildings, with arches and columns reconciled into combinations that not only give visually distinct pairing, but seamlessly blend two cherished styles. The rotunda is externally plated in gold and rises above the rest of the structure significantly, while inside, a stunning mural dedicated to Iowans’ service in the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union army during the Civil War, is surrounded by tiered statues in gold and honeycomb designs of corn bushels. 

Five domes are incorporated into the structure, entirely unique among the capitols, and makes a unique silhouette for the building against the night sky. The interior is immaculate, and outside, the color palette is almost entirely unique but perfectly shows the grandeur that true government can inspire. Iowa’s capitol building is not only the greatest of the American state capitols, but one of the finest testaments to architecture as an art form in all the world.