The Buffalo Nose and other tall tales

Did you know that the nickname of the Press Room at the old State Capitol back when the General Assembly sat there through 1961 was the “Buffalo Nose”. That’s one of the facts I uncovered in preparing a presentation I gave last night to the annual Capitol Beat opening reception. CapitolBeat is the Assocation of Capitol Reporters and Editors (The Statehouse beat). There were media reps from 25 or more states. One AP reporter from another state turned out to have been a year ahead of me in junior high school back in West Hartford, CT and lived not too far away from me.

Here is my presentation, all of which was put together by researching, emailing, making phone calls, and climbing around the Capitol yesterday:



I was asked to speak tonight about the North Carolina State Capitol, but I’m not sure why. I’m starting my 32nd year with the General Assembly tomorrow, and have been hanging around NC State government since 1971, but my only contact with the Capitol is to occasionally deliver or pick up bills, usually the state budget, from the Governor’s office. Former 4-term Governor Jim Hunt used to give me lemonade when I delivered bills, but I’ve yet to get anything from Governor Easley. Probably the new ethics laws.

Speaking of lemonade, the Third House was located in the west side of the first floor In 1868, during Reconstruction, an office and a makeshift bar was set up in the West Hall Joint Committee Room by former Union General Milton Littlefield. Due to its regular use by many legislators and officials under General Littlefield’s dubious influence, the room became known as the “Third House” of the legislature. It was described, during testimony before an investigative legislative commission in 1871-72, as containing a “profusion of bottles . . . and seegars.”  According to later anecdotes, whiskey barrels being rolled up and down the west first-to-second floor staircase for Littlefield’s bar damaged the edges of many steps; however, the barrel story is almost certainly false. A recent investigation determined that the edges of the steps actually had been damaged from beneath. The damage likely came from the constant hauling of large amounts of firewood in wheelbarrows up the “back” staircase during earlier legislative sessions (over 300 cords of wood were burned per session), as the Capitol’s woodshed stood near the northwest corner of Union Square. Long time legislative staffer Penny Williams, who started with the General Assembly in 1959 and is the last legislative staffer left who worked here in the Capitol told me this morning that the “third house” also operated as a bar during prohibition, according to stories she heard in the late 50s.

Penny also tells me that the press room during the 1959 session was made by glassing in the second floor portico on the East Wing, and was called the “Buffalo Nose” Two long-time UNC-Chapel Hill faculty members, now Professors emeriti, who worked in the University’s legislative reporting service in the 1950s this morning independently confirmed the name “Buffalo Nose” this morning, so I feel comfortable with three sources. .Prior to the 1959 session, the legislative press room was located where now the women’s rest room and janitor’s closet are located on the east wing of the second floor, right at the portico doors.

This building housed the General Assembly from November 16, 1840. through February 6, 1963 when the State Legislative Building was occupied two blocks north of Capitol Square. The State Legislative Building was the first building in the country constructed as a separate legislative building.
The Capitol, built in Greek Revival architecture style, is the second building on this site. In 1792, Raleigh was established as North Carolina’s permanent seat of government. A simple, two-story brick State House was built on Union Square between 1792 and 1796. Between 1820 and 1824, the State House was enlarged by State Architect William Nichols, but burned to the ground in 1831. The General Assembly of 1832-1833 ordered that a new Capitol be built as an enlarged version of the old State House–that is, a cross-shaped building featuring a central, domed rotunda. The State first employed William Nichols, Jr., and then the distinguished New York architectural firm of Ithiel Town and Alexander Jackson Davis to design the building. Most of the architectural details–mouldings, ornamental plasterwork, and the honeysuckle crown atop the dome–were carefully patterned after features of ancient Greek temples, perhaps like Barack Obama’s greek temple constructed at Mile High Stadium. The exterior columns are Doric style and modeled after those of the Parthenon. The House of Representatives chamber follows the semi-circular plan of a Greek theater and its architectural ornament is in the Corinthian style of the Tower of Winds. The Senate chamber is decorated in the Ionic style of the Erectheum.Completed in 1840 at a total cost of $532,682.34, the Capitol cost more than three times the yearly general income of the state at that time.

The Capitol housed all of North Carolina’s state government until 1888. The Supreme Court and State Library moved into a separate building in 1888, and the General Assembly moved into the State Legislative Building in 1963. Today the governor and lieutenant governor, and their immediate staff, occupy offices on the first floor of the Capitol.
The current capitol historian told me this morning that there are current employees who have seen apparitions, and other employees from the 1950s told the current staff that they saw ghosts of Union soldiers patrolling the capitol late at night.

When the Capitol was constructed, pavers with metal rings, located in each of the first floor halls, served as hatches to enter small crawl spaces beneath the building.  In the late 1880s, a small tunnel was built to connect the Capitol to a heating plant (no longer there) across Edenton Street, and later it also served as an electrical conduit. Contrary to legend, there was never an escape tunnel made for the governor to use during the Civil War. Some also insist there is a tunnel from the Capitol to the Governor’s mansion built during the Cold War, you can ask Governor Easley if this is true.
When the Capitol was built, the so-called “secret rooms,” above each of the two House offices, were neither rooms nor a secret. There simply were no accesses to the spaces from either end of the House gallery, as in the Senate Chamber, so those areas remained unfinished.  Until the 1920s, the spaces were accessible only from the attic, when the House offices were modified. Enclosed cast-iron spiral stairs were installed at the rear of both offices, and the upper areas were floored for use as additional legislative office space. Penny Williams worked in those offices in the 1959 session, access is like climbing the Statue of Liberty pre 9/11. It has been claimed that the “secret rooms” were used by Confederate spies during the Civil War and by political spies during the Reconstruction era, but neither story has ever been proven.


3 Responses to The Buffalo Nose and other tall tales

  1. WillR says:

    Great presentation. I posted a pointer to it on CitizenWill…

  2. Bill Sanders says:

    FYI–I was the political cartoonist for the Greensboro Daily News in Luther Hodges’ final year.When they build that press apendage, I drew a cartoon of a mounted buffalo head with a little false (circus type) nose strung onto the buffalo’s nose and labeled it as the Press Box. The Governor took the cartoon, printed up fancy certificates and created the Order of the Buffalo’s Nose and bestowed it on legislative member and others. Thus the Buffalo’s Nose tradition began. Am currently writing my last book “Against the Grain, Kennedy to Obama”—and came upon your blog when I googled NC State House Buffalo’s Nose–out of curiosity. (The first part of the book will deal with my time at Greensboro, Terry Sanford,etc. Bill Sanders

  3. web site says:

    Howdy! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be okay. I’m undoubtedly
    enjoying your blog and look forward to new posts.

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