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Virginia State Capitol

Virginia State Capital

Virginia State Capitol
City of Richmond
Department of Community Development

The Virginia State Capitol, which Thomas Jefferson designed with Charles-Louis Clérisseau, was the first Roman Revival building in America and the first American public building in the form of a classic temple.  The building was the site of significant events in American history while it was the Virginia State Capitol and in its role as the Capitol of the Confederate States of America from 1861 to 1865.

In 1779, the Virginia General Assembly authorized relocation of the seat of Virginia’s government from Williamsburg to Richmond.  In the legislation, the state established Directors of Public Buildings, whose job was to expand the city to the west of present-day 12th Street and to acquire six squares (city blocks) of land for government buildings.  The relocation authorization called for using two squares for an executive mansion and one square each for the executive offices, legislature, courts, and a market.  Governor Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Directors of Public Buildings supervised the planning of Shockoe Hill, including the Capitol Square area, in 1780.

The first step toward construction of a new capitol occurred in 1782 when the Virginia General Assembly agreed to consolidate the executive, legislative, and judicial branches into a single site with one building.  By 1784, Virginia’s Directors of Public Buildings acquired six contiguous city squares. This 12-acre site included the original executive mansion and space for construction of a new capitol building.  In 1785, the directors hurriedly broke ground on a new capitol building when the Virginia General Assembly began discussion of moving the state capital out of Richmond.

At that time, one of the directors, Thomas Jefferson, served as the United States Ambassador to France.  Jefferson intervened during the initial construction of the capitol and convinced his fellow directors to adopt an alternative design.  From France, Jefferson sent an architectural model (which is on display in the capitol) and plans for a temple-form capitol to house all three branches of Virginia’s government.  Jefferson and his French architectural collaborator Charles-Louis Clérisseau modeled their design on the Maison Carrée, a Roman Temple in Nimes, France, considered a model of perfect classical design. Construction of Jefferson’s capitol progressed slowly, and the stucco-clad brick building was not complete until 1800.

Virginia State Capitol and Visitor's Center Entrance

Virginia State Capitol and Visitor's Center Entrance
Virginia Department of Historic Resources

Although Capitol Square provided a dramatic setting for the capitol, the square remained an unimproved and raw tract for a number of years.  In 1816, Maxmilian Godefroy designed and the Commonwealth of Virginia began implementation of a formal landscaping plan.  In 1850, landscape designer John Notman of Philadelphia received a commission to redesign the square grounds, on the strength of his 1847 landscape design of Hollywood cemetery.  In his redesign of the square, Notman overlaid the right-angled formal landscaping of the Godefroy plan in the curvilinear “natural” style popular in the middle of the 19 century. 

In 1807 John Marshall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, presided over Aaron Burr’s trial for treason in the building.  Several Virginia constitutional conventions took place there, as did the state secession convention in 1861.  General Robert E. Lee accepted command of the Virginia armed forces before the secession convention in the capitol in April 1861.  During the Civil War, the Virginia State Capitol served as the Capitol of the Confederacy where the Confederate Congress met from July 1861 to April 1865.  The interior of the capitol collapsed during a sensational trial in the Supreme Court chamber in 1870, and for a time, the state considered demolishing the building.

The first major renovation came at the turn of the 20th century.  Architect John Kevan Peebles led a major renovation of the capitol from 1904 to 1906, removing and replacing all of the original stucco on the building. The new stucco coating reshaped the curvature of the portico columns on the front.  The renovation also included removing the exterior stairs on each side of the building and replacing them for the first time with stairs front of the portico.  Steel was used extensively inside to reinforce the structural systems, but the spaces remained essentially intact.  The most significant changes to the building came in the form of two new wings, an eastern or right hand wing to house the House of Delegates and a western wing for the State Senate. 

Between 2005 and 2007, the Capitol underwent another major renovation.  This work created a new entrance and underground visitor center on Bank Street and restored the building to the c. 1907 appearance on the interior and exterior.  Other changes included constructing a major new extension to the building beneath the hill in front of capitol and a major public entrance on Bank Street.  The Commonwealth of Virginia led by the Capitol Square Preservation Council adopted a new landscape master plan in 2004 that is now being used to rehabilitate many aspects of the 19th-century landscape. 

Plan your visit

The Capitol, a National Historic Landmark, is located downtown on Capitol Square bounded by 9th, Capitol, Governor, and Bank Sts. Click here for the National Historic Landmark registration file. The building is open free to all visitors Monday-Saturday 8:30am to 5:00pm, Sunday 1:00pm to 4:00pm.  The Capitol Square Grounds are open daily from 7:00am to 11:00pm.  For more information, visit The Virginia State Capitol website. Adjoining the Capitol are the Governor’s Mansion, Old City Hall, the Bell Tower, the United States Post Office, and St. Paul’s Church.  The Virginia State Capitol has been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey.

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