The Center of Town
Capitol Square (or, more properly, Union Square) has been both the geographical and political center of downtown Raleigh ever since the city was surveyed and laid out by William Christmas in 1792. With the massive Capitol building at its center, the square is anchored at its four corners by four imposing church buildings. Encircling the square are various somber stone and brick state government buildings, many of which are fine examples of the particular architectural period during which they were built. The first of these to be built, in 1888, was the Supreme Court building (now Labor); the last, the Museum of History in the 1990s.
For most of the 19th early 20th centuries, though, Capitol Square was surrounded by residences, a three-story brick hotel and the four churches. Later on Raleigh’s first public library, an art deco apartment building and the YMCA were built on the square. These are all gone now.
Government expansion beyond the limits of Capitol Square did not occur until 1962 with the completion of the Legislative Building, straddling (then) Halifax Street one block to the north. The remaining two residences were demolished around 1971.
When I was a kid in the ‘60s Capitol Square was a big part of my childhood. My Dad was employed by the state department of Archives and History, and his office occupied a former rooming house in the first block of Halifax St., which was largely still residential at the time. Sometimes instead of taking the bus home from school at Hugh Morson, I would walk down to his office and get a ride home when he got off work. In the meantime I would amuse myself in the Square by climbing on the statues or buying a nickel bag of peanuts from the “Peanut Man” to feed the pigeons.
The Peanut Man always occupied a spot in the square at the head of Fayetteville Street, dispensing his wares from a silver-colored charcoal-fired roaster, and surrounded by flocks of pigeons. Kids loved him! Back then pigeons pretty much had the run of the place, roosting all along building parapets, soiling statues and the like. The state later initiated a crackdown in the mid 1970s to get rid of them, and the first thing to go was the Peanut Man. I don’t think there’re any pigeons left in Capitol Square today.
All three of the state museums, History, Natural History and the Art Museum, were located on Capitol Square, so a family visit to any of them necessitated a romp in the square as well. The old cannons and guns mounted there were a special attraction to my brothers me, and a visit to the Peanut Man was a given. My family attended Christ Church right there across Wilmington St., and not a few times a pal and I would skip Sunday school and while away that designated holy hour in Capitol Square instead.
The Olivia Raney Library in the course of its demolition in 1966.
The original Olivia Raney Library fronted on Capitol Square at the corner of Hillsboro Street. It was housed in a beautiful Italian Renaissance style building constructed in 1899 and had a red tile roof; the Olivia Raney was Raleigh’s first public library, and only public library until the county system was set up in the early ‘70s. (The Harrison Library for African-Americans was on South Blount St opposite Moore Square, but I don’t know if it was part of the city system then or not.) Anyway, we were regular patrons of Olivia Raney.
Back then the Christmas parade was held at night rather than on Saturday morning as it is now. My family would all head downtown for that event, and while Mom went shopping, Dad took my brothers and me to see the parade. We always staked out the corner at the Olivia Raney because Dad figured that from that vantage point we could enjoy it three times instead of just the one: once, while it progressed up Hillsboro St; twice, while making the turn in front of the Library (…watching the marching bands make that turn was quite impressive, BTW), and finally watching it pass by right in front by the curbside!
Later, when I was in junior high school at Morson, and my two buddies and I went on our weekend exploratory forays downtown, we always met in centrally located Capitol Square, as there was always something to do while waiting for the others to show up.
Nowadays, with so many of the familiar landmarks gone, Capitol Square is a different kind of place for me. It is still a verdant oasis in the center of town, though, and if I squint hard enough, I can just make out the Peanut Man, stationed by his charcoal roaster, surrounded by flocks of pigeons!