The Virginia State Capitol has a rich and storied history. In 1780 the Capitol was moved from Williamsburg to Richmond, meeting in a hastily built temporary facility until the permanent capitol building could be completed. The permanent capitol building was designed by Thomas Jefferson and completed in 1788. The design was inspired by the Maiso Carrée at Nîmes, built by the Romans in the late Christian era. In addition to serving as the home of the Virginia State Legislature, it also played host to the government of the Confederate States during the American Civil War. The building was expanded in 1904 with the addition of two wings housing the new House and Senate chambers respectively. In 2007, it was further improved with a massive underground expansion.
Preserving the Likeness of American Heroes
In addition to housing the state legislature, the Capitol building serves as a quasi-museum highlighting many notable Virginians and their contributions to American history. One thing I found interesting is that the statue of George Washington, housed in the building’s rotunda, was sculpted by the Frenchman Jean-Antoine Houdon. He began by creating a ‘life mask’–a plaster mold–of Washington’s face and taking extensive and meticulous measurements of the former Commander in Chief. Houdon’s scrupulous attention to deal resulted in his creating what has come to be known as the most accurate representation of the former President.
Preserving America’s Republican Tradition
Another curiosity which I found particularly interesting, given my passion for government and politics, is that in 1700 the Royal Governor of Virginia gave the House of Burgesses an ornate mace (similar to a scepter only larger) as a symbol of the colonial legislature’s right to rule. In 1792, following the American War for Independence, the Legislature decided to retire the mace, noting the inconsistency of using a royal symbol in a republican legislature. After which they spent two years attempting to devise a design for a new mace that would highlight the state’s republican system. One notable suggestion came from Thomas Jefferson; he suggested a sword wrapped in a scroll. Something about that imagery just speaks to me personally; I imagine what Jefferson was trying to express was the manner in which the law, specifically the constitution, superseded the tyranny of coercion in the new nation–though this is purely speculation. Ultimately, the plan was abandoned due to concerns about the cost of the new mace. The original mace was, nevertheless, sold for a paltry $101. However, nearly two centuries later, in 1974 the House of Delegates acquired a new mace which is in use to this day.
Quality of Experience and Preservation
A significant portion of the Capitol is dedicated to the rich history of the building itself; it was designed by Thomas Jefferson, is home to the first legislative body in the western hemisphere, was home to the Confederate government, and survived–among other things–the fall of Richmond. This history is featured in a visually stunning timeline that wraps around an entire room shortly after you enter the building. The building itself has been beautifully restored and preserved. Especially the original House Chamber, which now features busts and statues of numerous notable Virginians–the bust of Sam Houston is of particular interest to this displaced Texan. One thing I think would greatly improve the Capitol experience is more digitally interactive displays; for example, the museum could have a mobile app developed that serves as a digital self-tour guide. Ultimately, however, it should stand as a model for other state capitols; the history of the building as well as of the notable Virginian’s has been wonderfully preserved and is beautifully and robustly presented through visual displays and expertly guided tours.