“We Virginians are funny about our dirt,” said the receptionist at the Virginia state capitol building in Richmond.
She was telling us about the renovation of the capitol, which took place from 2004 to 2007, when they restored the 18th century building and built a new underground wing to house a visitors’ center and more offices. They had removed dirt from the capitol grounds to build the new wing, stored it for three years, and then returned it once the building was done. Because: “Virginia dirt is historic.”
A visit to the capitol building wasn’t in our plans, but when we learned that it opened at 8 am, it seemed the perfect way for a couple of early risers to fill in the hours before everything else opened at 10. Better yet, it was within walking distance of our Richmond hotel.
The Virginia state capitol building is the second oldest (Maryland has the oldest) working capitol in the U.S. The original building, started in 1785 and finished in 1789, was designed by – guess who! – Thomas Jefferson in a – guess what! – classical revival style.
Along with being home to the Virginia legislature for all those years, it also was where the Confederate Congress met during the Civil War, starting in 1861 when Richmond became the Confederate capital. There’s a statue of Robert E. Lee in the old meeting hall of the Virginia House of Delegates, on the spot where he stood when he accepted command of Virginia’s armed forces.
Tours don’t start until 9 am but we’re not tour people anyway so we were more than happy to wander on our own. We went into the new underground visitors’ center and through security, got a pamphlet, and started up the long corridor into the heart of the building. On the way, there were exhibits about Virginia history, a café, and a new bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson – dedicated just a couple of weeks before — at age 42, around the time he was designing the building.
At the end of the halls and the stairs and more halls, was the receptionist. Her desk sits directly under an 18 ton statue of George Washington. It was the only object not removed from the building during renovation, because it was too heavy. “I try not to think about it,” she said.
The renovation was supposed to take two years but like all construction projects, wasn’t completed on time. When the construction firm asked for more time, they were told that they could have it, but that it absolutely, positively had to be finished before May 2007. Because on May 3, the Capitol was expecting Queen Elizabeth II. She was visiting for the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown.
I’m an Elizabeth fan, so I wanted details, which the receptionist was more than happy to supply. “She asked that school children be invited so that she could meet them. She must have walked around the building five or six times to greet them all.” There’s a long flight of stairs in front of the building that leads to the south portico, added in the early 20th century. It’s the way the Queen and the Governor entered the building. “She looked up to the top, then looked at the Governor and said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ And by the time those words were out of her mouth, she was at the top. She never took an elevator and she was 81 years old!” Clearly the receptionist was impressed by her stamina, and so was I. It’s got to be close to half a mile to circumvent the building.
She gave us the history of the building and probably spent more time with us than she would have had we not been the only people there. When we left her, we started toward the stairs on the west side of the building, to get to the rotunda and the main floor above. “Don’t take those stairs,” she said. She gestured to the ones on the east. “Take those. They’re the ones that Queen Elizabeth took.” Well if they were good enough for Queen Elizabeth….
The legislature wasn’t in session and the offices mostly were empty, so we poked our heads in everywhere. There’s definitely an advantage to visiting sites when there are few other people there, especially if you’re like me and just as interested in the back rooms as the front.
There are three rooms off the Rotunda on the main floor: the old Senate Chamber and the Old House Chamber (where the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates met, respectively, until 1904), and the Jefferson Room. The Jefferson Room is an homage to Jefferson, with a full length portrait and a plaster model of the Capitol commissioned by Jefferson. They sure do love them some Jefferson. There are at least four Jefferson quotes inscribed in various places around the Capitol.
Another level up and there’s the current House and Senate chambers. The third and final level has a gallery with the portraits of the last 16 Virginia governors.
The star of the public space was the life-size Carrera marble statue of George Washington in the middle of the rotunda. It’s the one that’s directly above the receptionist. Her desk is even circular, to match the fenced area, and she sits smack dab in the middle, under George.
The statue is by French sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon (Jefferson’s choice) and the only one made from life. Houdon went to Mount Vernon in 1785 to take Washington’s measurements and make a plaster bust of his head.
Around the Washington statue, in the niches, are busts of the Marquis de Lafayette and the other seven U.S. presidents born in Virginia: Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, William Henry Harrison (grandson Benjamin was born in Ohio), Tyler, Taylor and Wilson. (I highly recommend a very funny article about Virginia’s claim to being the “Mother of Presidents,” on the Virginia Historical Society’s blog.) There are two busts symmetrically placed on each wall, so I wonder what they’ll do if ever there’s another Virginia-born president. My guess is…good-bye, Marquis….