The Old State House Museum is the oldest standing state capitol building west of the Mississippi River. Construction on the building began in 1833 and was declared complete in 1842. The building was commissioned by Territorial Governor John Pope, who selected Kentucky architect Gideon Shryock (who previously designed the Kentucky state capitol building) to create plans for the Arkansas capitol. Shryock chose the Greek Revival style, then a popular design for public buildings, for Arkansas's new capitol. The original plans were grand and too expensive for the young territory's finances. Consequently, the plans were changed by George Weigart, Shryock's assistant, who oversaw construction at the Little Rock site.
In 1836, Arkansas became the 25th state; it was admitted along with Michigan under the provisions of the Missouri Compromise. The Missouri Compromise mandated that a slave state and free state be admitted to the Union simultaneously so that neither side gained a majority in the federal legislature.
When Arkansas became a state, government officials moved into the new building, despite ongoing construction. In fact, Arkansas legislators threatened workers with bodily harm because of construction noise during the session.
Much material for the building was obtained locally, even bricks which may have been made on-site with slave labor. The State House served as the state capitol until 1911, when construction was completed on a new building, located at what is now Capitol Avenue & Martin Luther King Drive. For more on the history of the building, see the Pillars of Power exhibit.
The Old State House underwent a succession of uses after the relocation of state government. Plans to sell the building were finally resolved by legislative action in 1921. In that year, the Old State House was renamed the Arkansas War Memorial and was prepared for use by federal and state agencies. The building also served as a meeting place for statewide patriotic organizations. Finally, in 1947, the Old State House became a museum by acts of the Arkansas legislature, and the Arkansas Commemorative Commission was established to oversee operations.
The museum received accreditation by the American Association of Museums in 1993. In early 1996, the staff and public learned that the building needed major foundation work to preserve it for future generations. Staff and collections moved out in May 1996. The restored museum re-opened to the general public in June 1999.
The Old State House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969, and it was declared a National Historic landmark in 1997. The American Association of Museums renewed the museum's accreditation in 2003.