Anticipating Arkansas's impending statehood, Territorial Governor John Pope ordered construction to begin on a new capitol in 1833. Pope, a Kentucky native, commissioned Kentucky State Capitol architect Gideon Shryock to design Arkansas's elegant new State House. Construction efforts proceeded slowly; when Arkansas became a state in 1836, the building was still incomplete, forcing legislators to move into their chambers while work continued around them. Completed in 1842, Shryock's design featured the Greek Revival style of architecture. This design movement dominated American building styles during the first half of the 19th century and proved especially popular for government buildings, since its Greek temple-like appearance suggested the democratic ideals of freedom and justice.
Shryock's plans, initially quite grand and impressive, ultimately proved too expensive for the growing territory's treasury to accommodate. Pope, along with Shryock's representative in Little Rock, George Weigart, altered the building's design to save money. They replaced expensive construction materials with more economical ones and eliminated some elaborate design elements. The roof was made with tin instead of copper, and bricks made on the premises and covered with plaster were used instead of limestone for the exterior.
The original building, designed with matching facades on both the north and south facades, had three separate sections. The executive branch was housed in the West wing, the legislative branch in the central section, and the judicial branch in the East wing. Workers later added covered walkways to shield government officials as they moved between the three sections.
Although the building received superficial repairs throughout its history, bigger changes were necessary to accommodate the needs of a growing state government. The first major renovation occurred in 1885, when the need for repairs could no longer be ignored and government officials worried about the structural integrity of the building. For the first time, officials called in an architectural team to correct some of the original engineering problems. Architects adapted the building's appearance to reflect recent innovations in American industry and culture. They chose the Victorian architectural style, with its emphasis on ornamentation and mass-produced, machine-made parts, to convey this message.
Workers removed the columns and porch on the river side and extended the building sixty feet to the north. Other improvements included enclosing the connecting walkways and adding a second floor to them; incorporating ironwork balustrades to the second floor exterior balconies on the Markham Street side; and inside, replacing the straight staircases with grand, curving ones. Since such sweeping stairs called for removing the windows from the landings, a skylight was installed in the central corridor to provide adequate light. A skylight was also added to the newly-enlarged House of Representatives.
Several women's organizations began calling for preservation of Arkansas's first State House as early as 1901, when it became apparent that state government planned to relocate. Numerous tenants occupied the State House after 1911, including the University of Arkansas Medical School, the Works Progress Administration, and patriotic organizations like the Arkansas Federation of Women's Clubs and the Daughters of the American Revolution. Deterioration continued while Arkansans argued about how and why it should be saved. At one point, developers nearly succeeded in tearing down the structure to make way for a downtown-area parking lot. With the building's future still uncertain, the state did little to correct any structural problems; one exception to this was the replacement of the original tin roof with an aluminum one. The combined efforts of many Arkansas women's organizations and the Arkansas State Legislature helped save the building and make it a museum of Arkansas history in 1947. Early 20th century photograph illustrates the deterioration that occurred to the building.
In 1949, architect Bruce Anderson led the effort to restore the building to its 1885 appearance while causing the least amount of structural damage.This was the first major act of preservation undertaken on the building. Workers removed all the interior plaster and stripped all the woodwork. Windows added after 1885 were bricked in and stuccoed over. The structure officially became a museum of Arkansas history in 1951.
Signs of age were beginning to show by 1996. Frontier-era building techniques were no match for the combination of time and daily usage. The mud-mortar and stone foundation proved insufficient to support such a large masonry structure, and cracks began appearing in the walls. Engineering studies recommended replacing the foundation in order to stabilize the building. After the foundation was finished, a concentrated effort was made to use historically accurate paint and decorative techniques during the remaining renovation work.