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Harrisburg: The City Beautiful


Mantle Piece Designed by Stephen Hills

An example of a mantle piece designed by Stephen Hills.

The first state capitol building was designed by architect Stephen Hills. He was known for putting beautiful mantlepieces in his buildings like the one to the left, and it is believed that one of these poorly ventilated fireplaces is where fire started on February 2, 1897. Around 10:30 in the morning Senator John C. Grady smelled smoke and started to investigate. After Senator Henry D. Saylor and Librarian Herman P. Miller had found flames shooting out from underneath the floor boards they sounded the alarm to evacuate the building. Incredibly, no one was hurt, especially given the fact that many initially laughed when they were told about the fire. The last member of the House of Representatives to leave, exited as the dome on top of the building exploded. 

Before and After the Fire at the Capitol Building

Pictures illustrating the extent of the damage to the Capitol Building after the 1897 fire.

The spectacle drew an enormous crowd who stood entranced in the wind and rain, and were difficult to keep out of the way of the firefighters who arrived within fifteen minutes after they had been alerted. Unfortunately, because of weather conditions, it took another fifteen minutes to get a stream of water onto the blaze. The fire spread to the entirety of the building as the firefighters tried in vain to get it under control. Open gas pipes caused an explosion that resulted in a group of firefighters being thrown against the walls and the elevator shot upwards and then plumeted back down. Adding to the chaos, the clock in the dome was knocked out of place and began to "strike wildly" according to eyewitnesses until finally the structure of the dome collapsed. The fire was not considered undercontrol until 7:30 that evening although it was still not extinguished. 

Photographs of the Destruction of the Capitol Building Fire

Photographs of the destruction of the Capitol Building fire. 

Almost immediately after leaving the building, legislators began discussing where to meet temporarily until a more permanent solution could be arranged. Many wanted to go to Philadelphia immediately because they were sure that adequate space could be provided there on such short notice, but it was decided that, for the time being, they would stay in Harrisburg. Since it was decided that they should not miss even a day, they decided to meet in Grace Methodist Episcopal Church. Eager to keep the legislators in Harrisburg, about 300 people worked day and night to prepare the church for the Senators and Representatives. According to Governor Hastings, the dilligence and generosity of the residents of the city resulted in him declining the offer from Philadelphia Mayor Warwick to use their council chambers instead.