After the State House of North Carolina was lost in a fire in 1831, the North Carolina General Assembly of 1832-1833 ordered that a new Capitol be built as an enlarged version of the old State House - that is, a cross-shaped building featuring a central, domed rotunda. This project was a large-scale, multiyear undertaking for the state, and was to be constructed on Raleigh’s central square using locally quarried stone.
The Commissioners for Rebuilding of the State Capitol first employed William Nichols, Jr. to help prepare building plans. In August 1833, Nichols was replaced by the distinguished New York architectural firm of Ithiel Town and Alexander Jackson Davis. Its principals modified and greatly improved the building's earlier design, essentially giving the Capitol its present appearance and plan. Around this time, project commissioners also placed ads in local papers asking for laborers to come work on the project. The work required stone masons, brickmakers, quarrymen, carpenters, plaster workers, and general laborers. Local enslavers responded to the ads by renting the labor of their enslaved men to construction. Enslaved men primarily worked on the project as general laborers or quarry-men.
Construction began on the site in early 1833. Initially, laborers were hired to clear away the rubble of the first State House. Construction was often affected by the weather. When labor began at the Capitol site in February of 1833, workers faced very cold winter conditions. In weather records, it was noted that the month was “very rainy and cold.”
In 1833, work also began at the state run rock quarry, positioned about a mile and a half southeast of the construction site. Enslaved men worked there as quarrymen, cutting and carting heavy granite from the earth. The stone was hauled to the Capitol's construction site on the horse-drawn Experimental Railroad, North Carolina's first railway.
David Paton (1801-1882), an Edinburgh-born architect, was hired in September 1834 to supervise the Capitol's construction. Paton replaced Town and Davis as the Commissioners' architect in early 1835. Except for the exterior stone walls, which were largely in place when he arrived in Raleigh, the Capitol was completed entirely under Paton's watch. He made several modifications to Town and Davis' plans for the interior, including the cantilevered or overhanging gallery on the second floor of the rotunda, the groined masonry vaulting of the first floor offices, and the interior arrangements of the east and west wings.
Most of the architectural details--mouldings, ornamental plasterwork, and the honeysuckle crown atop the dome--were carefully patterned after features of ancient Greek temples. The exterior columns are Doric style and modeled after those of the Parthenon. The House of Representatives chamber follows the semi-circular plan of a Greek theater and its architectural ornament is in the Corinthian style of the Tower of Winds. The Senate chamber is decorated in the Ionic style of the Erectheum. The only nonclassical areas in the building are two third floor rooms and their vestibules, which were finished in the Gothic style.
Completed in 1840 at a total cost of $532,682.34, the Capitol cost more than three times the yearly general income of the state at that time. The Capitol housed all of North Carolina's state government until 1888, and the Supreme Court and State Library moved into a separate building in 1888.