Virginia State Capitol

Virginia State Capitol

Infobox_nrhp | name =Virginia State Capital
nrhp_type =nhl

caption =Virginia State Capitol Building at Richmond, Virginia
location= Richmond, Virginia
area =
built =1785
architect= Thomas Jefferson; Charles-Louis Clérisseau
designated= December 19, 1960cite web|url=
title=Confederate Capitol |accessdate=2008-06-23|work=National Historic Landmark summary listing|publisher=National Park Service
architecture= Early Republic, Other
added = October 15, 1966
governing_body = State
refnum=66000911 cite web|url=|title=National Register Information System|date=2006-03-15|work=National Register of Historic Places|publisher=National Park Service]
The Virginia State Capitol is the seat of state government in the Commonwealth of Virginia, located in Richmond, the third State Capital of Virginia. It houses the oldest legislative body in the United States, the Virginia General Assembly. Although it was completed in 1788 and is over 215 years old, the current State Capitol building is the eighth built to serve as Virginia's State House, primarily due to fires in the Colonial period. It is one of 12 state capitols in the United States to not have an external dome. (The others are Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon and Tennessee.) The Virginia Capitol building does not have an external dome, but it does have an inside suspended dome.

Virginia's Capitals


During the colonial period prior to the formation of the United States, the Virginia Colony's first Capital was Jamestown, where the first legislative body, the Virginia House of Burgesses met in 1619. The new government went through four state houses at Jamestown due to fires.


A grand new Capitol building was constructed by Henry Cary, a contractor finishing work on the College of William and Mary's Wren Building (the legislature's temporary home). The Colonial Capitol building was a two-story H-shaped structure, actually two buildings connected by an arcade. The first floor of the west building was for the General Court and the colony's secretary, the first floor of the east for the House of Burgesses and its clerk. It was completed in November, 1705. Nearby was the grand Governor's Palace.

The building that stands today in Colonial Williamsburg is the third Capitol on that site. Cary built the first Capitol without fireplaces. In 1723, chimneys were added for fireplaces to help keep the Capitol dry. On January 30, 1747 the building burned and only some walls and the foundation remained.

Governor William Gooch urged that the Capitol be rebuilt, but many legislators preferred moving the government to a city more accessible to trade and navigation. In the meantime, the burgesses met again at the nearby Wren Building. Finally, in November, 1748, reconstruction of the Capitol was approved (by only two votes: 40 to 38). The burgesses met inside for the first time on November 1, 1753.

In this building Patrick Henry delivered his Caesar-Brutus speech against the Stamp Act on May 29, 1765. Henry, George Washington, George Mason, George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, and others played their parts in the legislative wars that ended in revolution. As fighting erupted in the North, the building rang to the debates over Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights, his Virginia constitution, and Jefferson's first attempt at a bill for religious freedom.

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, 1776.

The Capitol at Williamsburg served until the American Revolutionary War broke out, 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.

About 150 years later, through the efforts of Reverend Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin and John D. Rockefeller Jr., both the Capitol and the massive Governor's Palace at Williamsburg were thoroughly reconstructed and became major attractions at Colonial Williamsburg.


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.


From April 6th until April 10th, 1865 Danville served as the capital of Virginia. Under CSA President Jefferson Davis, the executive and legislative branches of the Commonwealth moved to Danville for the few days between the fall of Richmond and the fall of the Confederacy.

Jefferson's temple of democracy: the current Virginia Capitol

The site selected for a new, permanent building was on Shockoe Hill, a major hilltop overlooking the falls of the James River. Thomas Jefferson is credited with the architectural design of the new Virginia State Capitol building, which was modeled after the Maison Carrée at Nîmes in southern France, an ancient Roman temple. [cite book | first=Leland M. | last=Roth | year=1993 | title=Understanding Architecture: Its Elements, History and Meaning | edition=First | publisher=Westview Press | location=Boulder, CO | id=ISBN 0-06-430158-3 | pages=414] The only other state to accurately copy an ancient model is the Vermont State House, which based its portico on the Temple of Theseus in Athens. Jefferson had the architect, Charles-Louis Clérisseau, substitute the Roman Ionic Order over the more ornate Corinthian column designs of the prototype in France. The cornerstone was laid on August 18, 1785, with Governor Patrick Henry in attendance. It was sufficiently completed for the General Assembly to meet there in October, 1792.

American Civil War

The building also served as the Capitol of the Confederacy during the American Civil War (1861-1865). The State Capitol Building, the adjacent Virginia Governor's Mansion, and the White House of the Confederacy (about 3 blocks away to the north) 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 to fly over the capitol since secession was hoisted by Lieutenant Johnston L. de Peyster. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln toured the Capitol building during his visit to Richmond about a week before his assassination in Washington, DC.

1870: Tragedy

After the end of the American Civil War, during the Reconstruction period, Virginia was under military rule for almost 5 years, ending in January, 1870. In the following months, a dispute over leadership of the City of Richmond government led to the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals holding a hearing on April 27, 1870 in the large courtroom located on the second floor of the Virginia State Capitol Building. 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 some 40 feet into the Hall of the House of Delegates.

The injured stumbled, crawled, or were carried out onto the Capitol lawn in the mayhem which followed. 62 men were killed and 251 were injured. There were no women believed to have been present when the collapse occurred. The dead included a grandson of Patrick Henry, and 3 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

Despite calls for the building's demolition, the damage from the tragedy in 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 Virginia General Assembly approved $83.1 million USD for the renovation, restoration, and expansion of the Virginia Capitol building. Work began in 2004 and was completed on May 1st, 2007 (In time for Queen Elizabeth's visit to Richmond and Jamestown). Among major changes are a totally new HVAC system, updated mechanical, storm water, and plumbing systems, and the construction of an 80,000 sq. ft. expansion located underground, beneath the hill on the south lawn. The expansion provides a visitor's entrance that is ADA compliant, office space and meeting rooms, and better security management. Total final cost of the restoration was approximately $104 million USD.

In Film and Television

Given its Classical Revival style of architecture along with the fact that its color is white, The Virginia State Capitol was the double for the exterior shots of The White House featured in the film The Contender. [cite web|url= |title="The Contender filmed on location in Virginia"|date=2000-09-28||publisher=Virginia FIlm Office|format=PDF]


External links

Map of Capitol Square
* [ - Site Map of Capital Square]
* [ Visiting Information]
* [ Virginia General Assembly web site - official website of the Virginia General Assembly]
* [ Virginia State Capitol Online Virtual Tour]
* [ State Library of Virginia - Virginia State Capitol online exhibit]
* [ Capitol history and information on the 2004-2007 renovation and expansion projects for the Capitol and Capitol Square buildings]
* [ Colonial Williamsburg official website]
* [ Richmond, Virginia, a National Park Service Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary]

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