The Old State House is the oldest standing state capitol building west of the Mississippi River. Construction on the Old State House began in 1833 and was declared complete in 1842. The building was commissioned by Territorial Governor John Pope, who chose Kentucky architect Gideon Shryock to create plans for the Arkansas capitol. Shryock chose the Greek Revival style for Arkansas's new capitol.
Much material for the Old State House was obtained locally, including bricks made on-site with slave labor. The building served first as the Confederate and later as the Union capitol during the Civil War. After Little Rock fell to Union forces on September 10, 1863, General Frederick Steele quartered part of his army there. Early in 1864, Steele ordered repairs to the State House, though they were cut short by his march to Camden in the spring.
The State House served as the state capitol until 1911, when construction was completed on a new building. The Old State House underwent a succession of uses after the relocation of state government. In 1921, it 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.
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.
William Jefferson Clinton has stated that, to him, the Old State House embodies both a reverence for the past and a hope for the future. When work began on the State House in 1833, Arkansas was still a wilderness on the edge of the American frontier, and Little Rock was little more than a humble collection of log cabins. But the people of Arkansas chose to erect a grand edifice reflecting the glory and democracy of ancient Greece to house their new governmenta legacy of hope built in the wilderness and a fitting start for those first steps across the bridge into a new millennium.
Problems have plagued the Old State House since it was built. By far the most serious was the inadequacy of its foundation. By the mid-1990s, gaps were appearing between the walls and the central staircase and also between the walls and the floor in the large 1885 House of Representatives Chamber. The situation could no longer be ignored. So in 1996, the Old State House Museum closed to undergo the most extensive restoration in its history.