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Virginia Washington Monument

Washington Monument

Virginia's Washington Monument
City of Richmond
Department of Community Development

 

The Virginia Washington Monument became the first of Richmond’s many outdoor monuments and the second equestrian statue of George Washington in the United States.  The monument influenced others across the nation to erect representational memorial statues.  Interest in establishing an outdoor Virginia Washington Monument in Capitol Square began even before the Virginia General Assembly established a public subscription fund for it in 1817. 

The French émigré architect, Maximilian Godefroy, proposed a monument design in 1816, a large triumphal arch monument in front of the Virginia State Capitol portico.  The Godefroy monument never came to be, but his extensive formal landscaping was in place by 1820.  This early master plan for the square proposed a never constructed combination water tower and observatory on the site later chosen for the Washington Monument.

Virginia’s Washington Monument effort gathered subscriptions for a number of years but did not gain momentum until 1849 when a group of patriotic Richmonders stirred the project into action.  The Virginia General Assembly held an architectural competition that year and selected a design by Thomas Crawford, an American sculptor working in Rome.  The winning design Crawford submitted largely conforms to the completed Virginia Washington Monument in place today with its base in the shape of a star fort and the three-tiered pedestal for sculptural figures.  The stonework of the base was complete by 1854. 

Crawford designed three tiers of pedestals with George Washington on top, Virginia patriots in the middle, and a series of allegorical female figures and shields with inscriptions in memory of Revolutionary war principles or events on the bottom.  The trophy figures represent the virtues of the revolutionary era and battles and places representing those virtues. The second tier consists of standing figures of Virginia’s leaders during the Revolution: Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, John Marshall, Andrew Lewis, Thomas Nelson, and Patrick Henry.  Atop the pedestal is the equestrian statue of Washington.  Crawford only finished the sculptures of Washington, Jefferson, and Henry before his death.  Crawford’s protégé, another important sculptor Randolph Rogers, completed the remaining pedestal sculptures after the Civil War. 

Crawford had the Washington equestrian statue cast in Munich, Germany shortly before his death.  A United States frigate transported the figure to Richmond.  A group of men and boys hauled the statue to Capitol Square from Rocketts Landing, breaking down a section of fence in the process.  The engineer Charles Dimmock rigged an ingenious wooded derrick to hoist the statue on the base, and legend has it he threatened workers at gunpoint when they appeared to be letting go of the rope.  The unveiling of the statue was an event of national importance, which took place on Washington’s birthday, February 22, 1858.  The statue was one of Richmond’s most prominent attractions, and the Commonwealth erected a cast iron fence around the base in the 1870’s to prevent climbing on the base. 

Washington Monument 1865

Virginia Washington Monument 1865
Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries

The monument represents the height of the “cult of Washington” in the 19th century.  The Commonwealth of Virginia proposed to relocate the remains of Washington there in 1816, but his heir Bushrod Washington refused the request.  The hope of making Capitol Square Washington’s last resting place persisted, and Crawford’s design reflects this hope.  The base of the monument includes a tomb with a massive stone door to secure the remains of the first president.  Efforts to obtain Washington’s remains did not succeed in the 1850’s, and Washington’s intended tomb remains empty.

The Washington Monument is a highly significant work of art by one of the most important early-19th century sculptors in the United States.  Recognizing the value of the monument, the Commonwealth of Virginia has undertaken conservation of the granite base and bronze figures in recent years.

Plan your visit

The Virginia Washington Monument is located at the northwest corner of Capitol Square, near the intersection of 9th and Broad Streets adjacent to the Virginia State Capitol, the Governor’s Mansion, Old City Hall, and St. Paul’s Church.  The monument can be viewed from the grounds of Capitol Square, which are open daily from 7:00am to 11:00pm. The Washington Monument has been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey.

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