Virginia State Capitol

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Virginia State Capitol
Va State Capitol.JPG
The Virginia State Capitol Building in June 2003.
Location Richmond, Virginia, U.S.
Built 1785
Architect Thomas Jefferson; Charles-Louis Clérisseau
Architectural style Early Republic, Palladian
NRHP Reference # 66000911[1]
VLR # 127-0002
Significant dates
Added to NRHP October 15, 1966
Designated NHL December 19, 1960[3]
Designated VLR November 5, 1968[2]

The Virginia State Capitol is the seat of state government of the Commonwealth of Virginia, located in Richmond, the third capital city of the U.S. state of Virginia. It houses the oldest legislative body in the Western Hemisphere, the Virginia General Assembly, first established as the House of Burgesses in 1619.

The Capitol was conceived of by Thomas Jefferson and Charles-Louis Clérisseau in France. Although it was completed in 1788 and is 226 years old as of 2016, the current Capitol is the eighth built to serve as Virginia's state house, primarily due to fires during the Colonial period. In the early 20th century, two wings were added, leading to its present appearance. In 1960, it was designated a National Historic Landmark.

Colonial precursors[edit]

Reconstruction of the first Williamsburg capitol

During the American Colonial period, Virginia's first capital was Jamestown, where the first legislative body, the Virginia House of Burgesses, met in 1619. The new government used four state houses at different times at Jamestown due to fires.

With the decision to relocate the government inland to Williamsburg in 1699, a grand new Capitol building was completed in November 1705. Nearby was the grand Governor's Palace. It burned in 1747 and was replaced in 1753.

On June 29, 1776, Virginians declared their independence from Great Britain and wrote the state's first constitution, thereby creating an independent government four days before Congress voted for the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia on July 4.

The Capitol at Williamsburg served until the American Revolutionary War began, when Governor Thomas Jefferson urged it that the capital be relocated to Richmond. The building was last used as a capitol on December 24, 1779, when the Virginia General Assembly adjourned to reconvene in 1780 at the new capital, Richmond. It was eventually destroyed.



Jefferson modeled Virginia's capitol on the Maison Carrée.

When it convened in Richmond on May 1, 1780, the legislature met in a makeshift building near Shockoe Bottom. Plans were begun for a new building to serve a new state, the commonwealth of Virginia. The site selected for a new, permanent building was on Shockoe Hill, a major hill overlooking the falls of the James River.

Thomas Jefferson is credited with the overall design of the new Capitol, together with French architect Charles-Louis Clérisseau. The design was modeled after the Maison Carrée at Nîmes in southern France, an ancient Roman temple.[4] The only other state to accurately copy an ancient model is the Vermont State House, which based its portico on the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens. Jefferson had Clérisseau substitute the Ionic order over the more ornate Corinthian column designs of the prototype in France. At the suggestion of Clérisseau, it used a variant of the Ionic order designed by Italian student of Andrea Palladio, Vincenzo Scamozzi.[5]

The cornerstone was laid on August 18, 1785, with Governor Patrick Henry in attendance, prior to the completion of its design. In 1786, a set of architectural drawings and a plaster model were sent from France to Virginia, where it was executed by Samuel Dobie. It was sufficiently completed for the General Assembly to meet there in October 1792.

It is one of only twelve Capitols in the United States without an external dome. (The others are the Capitols of Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio and Tennessee.)

American Civil War[edit]

Capitol in 1865

The building also served as the Capitol of the Confederacy during the American Civil War (1861–65) (It was the Confederacy's second home, the first being the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama).

Virginia State Capitol depicted on a 1864 Confederate $5 banknote
Virginia State Capitol depicted on a 1864 Confederate $5 banknote

The Capitol, the adjacent Virginia Governor's Mansion, and the White House of the Confederacy (about three blocks to the north on East Clay Street) were spared when departing Confederate troops were ordered to burn the city's warehouses and factories, and fires spread out of control in April 1865. The first Flag of the United States to fly over the capitol since secession was hoisted by Lieutenant Johnston L. de Peyster. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln toured the Capitol during his visit to Richmond about a week before his assassination in Washington, DC.

From April 6 until April 10, 1865 Lynchburg served as the Capital of Virginia. Under Gov. William Smith, the executive and legislative branches of the commonwealth moved to Lynchburg for the few days between the fall of Richmond and the fall of the Confederacy.

1870 tragedy[edit]

After the end of the American Civil War, during the Reconstruction period, Virginia was under military rule for almost five years, ending in January 1870. In the ensuing months, a dispute over leadership of the Richmond government resulted in the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals holding a hearing on April 27, 1870, in the large courtroom on the second floor of the Capitol. Several hundred people crowded in. Before the proceedings could begin, the gallery (balcony) gave way and fell to the courtroom floor. This added weight, in addition to the crowd already there, caused the entire courtroom floor to give way, falling 40 feet (12 m) into the House of Delegates chamber.

The injured stumbled, crawled or were carried out onto the Capitol lawn during the mayhem that followed. Sixty-two people were killed and 251 injured.[6] There were no women believed to have been present when the collapse occurred. The dead included a grandson of Patrick Henry, and three members of the General Assembly. Injured included both men contesting the Richmond mayoral position, the speaker of the House of Delegates, a judge and ex-governor Henry H. Wells. Former Confederate general Montgomery D. Corse was partially blinded by the collapse.

Rebuilding, expansion, renovation[edit]

Modern renovation with wings on both sides

Despite demands for the building's demolition, the damage from the tragedy of 1870 was repaired. In 1904, two wings (not in the original plans) were added to the east and west ends of the building to provide much-needed additional space for the growing legislature.

In 2003, the assembly approved $83.1 million for the renovation, restoration and expansion of the Capitol. Work began in 2004 and was completed on May 1, 2007. Among major changes are a completely new HVAC control system, updated mechanical, storm water and plumbing systems, and construction of a 27,000-square-foot (2,500 m2) expansion beneath the hill on the south lawn. The expansion provides a visitor's entrance that is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, plus office space and meeting rooms, and better security management. The final cost of the restoration was approximately $104 million. The extension was designed by architect Sonja Bijelić.[7]


Capitol Square [edit]

Bell Tower
Location Capitol Sq., Richmond, Virginia
Area 14.1 acres (5.7 ha)
Built 1824
Architect Swain, Levi
Architectural style Federal
NRHP Reference # 69000347[1]
VLR # 127-0121
Significant dates
Added to NRHP June 11, 1969
Designated VLR November 5, 1968[2]

The area around the Capitol is known as Capitol Square. It contains several monuments to prominent Virginians and events in Virginia:

In 1869, the monument was completed, with statues of the following encircling the base:

In film and television[edit]

Given its Classical Revival style of architecture along with the fact that its color is white, the Capitol was the double for the exterior shots of The White House featured in the movie The Contender.[8]

In the 1993 comedy-drama film Dave, the House of Delegates chamber served as the set of the United States House of Representatives, where the title character addresses a joint session of Congress.

The Virginia State Capitol was used to represent United States Capitol in the 2012 epic historical drama film Lincoln.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Staff (2006-03-15). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 
  2. ^ a b "Virginia Landmarks Register". Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Retrieved 19 March 2013. 
  3. ^ "Confederate Capitol". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. Retrieved 2008-06-23. 
  4. ^ Roth, Leland M. (1993). Understanding Architecture: Its Elements, History and Meaning (First ed.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press. p. 414. ISBN 0-06-430158-3. 
  5. ^ Brownell, Charles E. (1992). The Making of Virginia Architecture. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. pp. 46–53, 214–217. 
  6. ^ Christian, George L. (1915). The Capitol disaster. A chapter of reconstruction in Virginia. Richmond, Virginia: Richmond Press, Inc. 
  7. ^ ArchSTUDIO2227: The Virginia Capitol Extension
  8. ^ ""The Contender" -- filmed on location in Virginia and starring Gary Oldman, Joan Allen and Jeff Bridges -- opens October 13" (PDF) (Press release). Virginia Film Office. 2000-09-28. Retrieved 2013-01-30. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 37°32′20″N 77°26′01″W / 37.538758°N 77.433594°W / 37.538758; -77.433594