The first capitol in Vandalia was a frame two-story building erected on the northwest corner of Fifth and Johnson streets – at the current site of The Leader-Union. Construction began in the spring of 1820, and records show it was built at a cost of around $4,000.
A fire, discovered around 2 a.m. on the morning of Dec. 9, 1823, totally destroyed the building, along with some state papers.
Forced to house the Senate and House of Representatives, eyes turned to the former State Bank Building, also a victim to fire, which stood in the center of the block on Fourth Street, where the Copper Penny restaurant/bar now stands. The brick building was patched up and, as we are to learn, a two-story addition was added to the structure to hold both houses of government.
In a recently discovered article, written by Thomas Lippincott and published in The Alton Telegraph on March 17, 1865, we are provided with a rare look at the second building used as a capitol in Vandalia.
In Lippincott’s article, he refers to the “lower side of the square,” which is along Fourth Street to the west. The “upper side” borders the Public Square on the east.
“A square of respectable dimensions, quite as respectable certainly as that on which the present Statehouse stands, was retained in the center; designed eventually to be occupied by the Statehouse; and one was afterwards built on it; and around the square the buildings needed for officers were scattered. These were temporary, of course.
“At the next and lower side of the square, and facing it, a wooden building had been put up, two stories high – not very high, though – sufficient to accommodate the Senate on the upper and House of Representatives on the lower floor. At one end of the building, passage was partitioned off, some 8 or 10 feet wide, with a stairway. This afforded entrance to both halls of the legislature.
“The style of the building was primitive, and plain as a quaker meeting house. But it answered the purposes of legislation, or most of them, for I do not remember any committee rooms, unless there was one of moderate size partitioned off from the Senate chamber.
“On the opposite and upper side of the square was a structure then considered, built by Mr. Ernst, a German gentleman, and occupied for a hotel. Some members were accommodated there, and others where they could find a room about town.
“I wish the members of the legislature recently adjourned, who grumbled so much about their fare, could have had a bird’s-eye view of Vandalia that winter, 1822-1823; especially…I fared well. Four of us clerks found board at a private house; good enough; and lodged in a room together where we had a good fire.
“Col. Henry S. Dodge, engrossing and enrolling clerk of the Senate, was my bedfellow, as well as associate in the clerical department. David J. Baker, who was acting as assistant clerk of the lower house, and sometimes Henry Starr, occupied the other bed.
“The furniture of the Statehouse was as plain and primitive as the structure. No cushioned chairs, but long, hard benches were the seats of the members. The speaker, I think, sat on an arm chair on a platform hardly large enough to contain it, and a few inches high, with a board before him for a desk, supported by several sticks called balusters, and a table before it for the clerk.
“The governor, secretary of state and other high officers, who did not happen to reside in Vandalia, had lodgings and board little, if any, better than the rest. Where their offices for businesses were that winter, I cannot say. The auditor’s was in a brick building, if I remember.
“It should be borne in mind that Vandalia was only about three years old at this time, and that it had no railroad in existence or expectancy to push it forward; no settlements older than itself around it; and no extraordinary soil or peculiar natural advantages. It had to make itself.
“The Cumberland Road was an afterthought, so far as this place was concerned; and though the Kaskaskia, which passed by it, had been, as I heard, declared navigable by law, there seemed to be a higher law which utterly ignored or forbade its navigation. A great state of forwardness in improvement could hardly have been expected.”
By 1835, the northwest corner of the second capitol building bulged 8-10 inches, and a crack ran up the north chimney. It was estimated that it would cost $3,000 to repair the building. The second floor had dropped 8 inches, and had been repaired two years earlier.
On Aug. 12, 1836, William Hodge, James Black and several others visited Gov. Duncan at his home in Jacksonville to report on the condition of the capitol building. After presenting a proposal for the new building, the governor gave them $6,000 from a contingency fund to begin construction of a third capitol building.
On Sept. 3, 1836, the foundation was laid by David Waterman and John Maddox, using 312 perches of native stone, or 7,800 cubic feet, borrowed from the stockpile of quarried stone slated for bridge construction across the Kaskaskia River on the National Road.