Architectural Record BE - Building Enclosure

A Revered Jeffersonian Landmark Renewed

With thorough research, testing, and analysis, A Hillier-led design team equips the State Capitol of Virginia for the 21st century, while preserving its rich history
This course is no longer active
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From Architectural Record
Nancy B. Solomon, AIA
Continuing Education

Learning Objectives - After this course, you should be able to:

  1. Explain Jefferson's design concept for the Virginia State Capitol.
  2. Discuss the design considerations for the visitor center and new public entrance.
  3. Describe the methods used to excavate the historic site.



Of the 50 working state capitols in the U.S., arguably none is as historically significant as that of Virginia, in the city of Richmond. The original building, begun in 1785, was essentially the design of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States. With this commission, Jefferson sought to embody the ideals of the American Revolution in architectural form.

Eschewing the provincial English Georgian style prevalent in the period, Jefferson looked to ancient Roman models for inspiration. "He was trying to provide a model that would be eternally beautiful," explains Calder Loth, senior architectural historian at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Jefferson designed the capitol after the Maison Carrée, a Roman temple in Nîmes, France, as depicted in engravings by Charles-Louis Clérisseau. Situated on what was known as Shockoe Hill, with a ceremonial portico overlooking the James River to the south, the brick structure rose high above all else in Richmond. Main entrances to the east and west led through vestibules to a central skylit rotunda. Double-height assembly halls flanked this grand space on the north and south.

The shape of democracy

Reflecting the imagery that developed alongside the birth of democracy, Jefferson's house of government was a highly visible and dignified structure that evoked respect yet encouraged citizens to participate in the democratic process. And, as Jefferson had hoped, the building became a model for the architecture that would house virtually all public institutions, from capitols and courthouses to post offices and libraries. "It began the Classical Revival movement in this country," notes Loth.

The vision of the primary architect was strong and clear enough to allow the building to adapt to the needs of later generations without diluting Jefferson's concept. As scholar Fiske Kimball pointed out in "Thomas Jefferson and the First Monument of the Classical Revival in America," which appeared in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects in 1915, even the original construction deviated in minor but discernable ways from the design. Jefferson sent drawings from France, where he was serving as U.S. minister. However, work began before the documents arrived, and builders laid a foundation that was larger than the one called for in these plans. They also raised the height of the first floor and omitted the ceremonial steps intended for the south-facing portico.

For more than a century after it was built, the Virginia State Capitol remained a structure with a single columned portico and pediment (left). Around 1906, two symmetrical wings were added, giving the building much the same appearance it has today (right).Images: Courtesy Hillier Architecture, except as noted; © Tom Crane (right); Beveridge Collection, Valentine Richmond History Center (left)

As time marched on, the building and surrounding Capitol Square provided the backdrop to other notable events. In 1807, Aaron Burr was tried for treason here, and ultimately acquitted. From May 1861, until Robert E. Lee's army abandoned Richmond in April 1865, the building served as the capitol for the Confederacy. Remarkably, the structure escaped the ensuing fires that burned much of the rest of the city.

Between 1904 and 1906, two symmetrical wings-one for the House and the other for the Senate-were added to the east and west, connecting to the original building's main entrances via narrow corridors. The expansion deferred to Jefferson's Classical precedent. At this time, Jefferson's steps were finally added to the portico. Another major renovation was undertaken in the early 1960s, which included enlarging the corridors leading to the legislative chambers and upgrading building systems.

By the late 1990s, the complex still retained its status as the "temple on the hill," but was in great need of repair. "The building was like a shabby southern lady held together with Band-Aids," says Susan Clarke Schaar, the Clerk of the Senate. The plumbing was shot, freshly painted walls would quickly begin to peel, and the electrical system was problematic. In addition, space was at a premium. Even with the previous expansions, the building remained the nation's smallest working capitol, with only 60,000 useable square feet. And although the historic structure received up to 170,000 visitors annually, it had no dedicated reception area or room for educational programming.

But how does one repair, upgrade, and add on to a landmark with so many layers of historical significance? The answer comes from listening to the building itself, according to Philadelphia-based George C. Skarmeas, AIA, a principal of Hillier Architecture. The firm was selected in 2003 to lead the $105 million assessment, renovation, and expansion project, completed in early April. "The building had to be the first and most significant source of information and inspiration to guide us," he says.

So began an extensive review of the existing complex by the highly integrated project team, which included not only Hillier and staff from the Commonwealth of Virginia's Department of General Services, but also an association of the Gilbane Building Company and the Christman Company as construction managers, structural engineer Robert Silman Associates, and mechanical engineer Joseph R. Loring & Associates, among a host of other consultants from the U.S. and abroad.


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Originally published in Architectural Record.