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RICHMOND
Old City Hall

Old City Hall

Old City Hall
City of Richmond
Department of Community Development

 

Old City Hall is a masterpiece of monumental High Victorian Gothic design. This grand edifice remains a testament to the ambition and pride in democracy of the people of Richmond. Completed in 1894, eight years after the groundbreaking ceremony, Old City Hall served as Richmond’s city hall until the 1970s, when a new city hall was constructed. The third Richmond municipal building on this site, Old City Hall occupies an entire city block overlooking Capitol Square. The original City Hall and Courthouse stood on this site from 1816 to 1875.

City Engineer Wilfred Cutshaw led the efforts to build a new and substantial replacement for the 1816 building. A national architectural competition resulted in the selection of Elijah Myers of Detroit, the designer of the State capitols of Michigan, Colorado, Texas, and Idaho and winner of the international competition for the Parliament Buildings in Rio de Janeiro.

The bids for the elaborate Gothic Revival design came in vastly over budget due to massive materials and extensive ornamentation. City Engineer Wilfred Cutshaw futilely attempted to manage the cost of the project by serving as the project contractor and hiring day laborers. In the end, the project cost an astounding $1.3 million dollars, a colossal expenditure for a public building in that era, greatly exceeding the original $300,000 estimate.

Dominated by two large asymmetrical towers, the Broad Street façade of the building is reminiscent of town halls in Belgian cities. The stone exterior is beautifully detailed ashlar with buttresses and pointed arches. Of monumental scale, Old City Hall measures 170 feet by 140 feet culminating with the clock tower, which rises to a height of 195 feet. The most notable interior feature is an impressive skylighted central court surrounded by arcaded galleries.

An important specialist, James Netherwood was the subcontractor for the stone portion of Old City Hall’s construction. Netherwood, an English immigrant, provided the “Petersburg” granite quarried locally along the James River. Netherwood’s workers made the vast amount of smooth and “pitched” ashlar blocks of building stone used in the construction of the building. They relied on steam-driven saws and polishing tools developed in Britain in the 19th century. Netherwood's beautifully detailed and finished exterior represents a high point for the Richmond granite industry. Old City Hall is the largest granite building in the Richmond.

Old City Hall historic

Old City Hall
Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries

Another specialist, Richmond iron founder, Asa Snyder, cast the grills and fencing along with the magnificent cast iron atrium, a masterpiece of cast iron architecture. Snyder, a New York immigrant, was a leader in the development of architectural cast iron in Richmond. Restored to its original polychrome color scheme, the atrium is an outstanding example of, and a high point for cast iron architecture in Richmond.

Old City Hall survives despite at least two proposals to demolish it. In 1915, a scant 20 years after completion of the building, a proposal for a civic center suggested removing the building to create a mall extending north from the capitol. After the building closed in 1971, demolition was again seriously considered. Saving the building was a significant preservation victory, and rehabilitation in the early 1980s as offices returned it to its former glory. At present, the building is being considered for use as state offices.

Plan your visit
Old City Hall occupies an entire city block, bounded on the west by 10th St., on the east by 11th St., on the south by Capitol St., and on the north by E. Broad St.   The first floor of the building is open to the public and may be visited Monday-Friday, 8:00am to 5:00pm, for free.  Old City Hall has been designated as a National Historic Landmark.  Click here for the National Historic Landmark registration file.  Old City Hall has been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey.
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