In 1904, extensive renovation and additional construction to the Capitol were begun. Wings were added to the west of the original structure as a new Senate chamber and to the east as new quarters for the House of Delegates. In 1964 connectors were enlarged on the wings to create conference room space. At the same time a modern heating and air conditioning system was installed. Other modernizations have also been added, including automatic elevators, public address systems, electronic voting tabulators, a snack bar, and other facilities unknown to Jefferson’s contemporaries. These structures remain in use to the present day.
Virginia’s historic Capitol Square in downtown Richmond is an architectural and artistic setting for events shaping America’s individual liberties, political institutions, judicial traditions, and social progress. Government buildings and public monuments on the Square are reminders of power, leadership and enduring principles. The twelve acres of landscaped grounds are enclosed by an original and distinctive 1818 cast iron fence–one of the earliest of its kind in the country. The historic grounds and buildings of Capitol Square are recognized as an ideal downtown location for legislation, inauguration and commemoration. Capitol Square remains an active public park and civic campus for self-government in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
The Capitol, designed by statesman-philosopher Thomas Jefferson, is the centerpiece on the Square. It is the first public building in the New World designed as a monumental classical temple. America’s oldest English-speaking representative assembly has been meeting here since 1788. This assembly, meeting at the Capitol, ratified the U.S. Bill of Rights in December 1791, causing them to go into effect throughout the nation.
For many years both Federal and Virginia courts met in the Capitol. Lawyer and orator Patrick Henry argued important cases here. In 1807 the “Great Chief Justice” John Marshall presided over the treason trial of Aaron Burr in a Federal circuit court meeting at the Capitol. His precedent-setting rulings established an American legal definition of treason, in effect to this day.
The Executive Mansion stands just east of the Capitol within the grounds of Capitol Square. Designed by Boston architect Alexander Parris, the Federal-era mansion has been the official residence of Virginia governors and their families since its completion in March 1813. Many presidents and foreign dignitaries have been entertained here. It is the oldest governor’s mansion in the nation still being used for its original purposes.
The Neoclassical Oliver Hill, Sr., building, begun in 1893 as the Commonwealth’s first state library building, stands to the east of the Capitol and south of the Executive Mansion. The lieutenant governor and the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services have offices here. In the southeast corner of the square is the twelve-story Washington Building, an imposing structure completed in 1924 and currently undergoing renovations.
Standing in the southwest corner of the square is the brick Bell Tower. It was completed in 1825 for use by the Virginia Public Guard, a military predecessor to the present-day Virginia Capitol Police. The Bell Tower still tolls its bell each day to call the General Assembly into session. The Virginia Tourism Corporation maintains a public visitor center on the tower’s first floor.
Public Art, Monuments and Memorials
The Capitol, Executive Mansion and other public buildings nearby, as well as the Square itself, provide the setting for a collection of more than 130 paintings and portrait statuary honoring many distinguished Americans. An original life-size marble statue of George Washington by Jean-Antoine Houdon stands inside the center of the Capitol. Outdoors, bronze statues and living memorial trees populate the landscaped Square.
A large equestrian statue of George Washington atop a granite pedestal is located just northwest of the Capitol at the formal entrance to the square. This monument was conceived to honor Washington and to glorify Virginia’s contributions to independence. Virginia’s role in the Revolution is depicted by six of her sons surrounding General Washington, who is dressed in a military uniform. Smaller allegorical figures below the six pedestrian statues are inscribed with themes reflecting each patriot’s contribution: Andrew Lewis, Colonial Times; Patrick Henry, Revolution; George Mason, Bill of Rights; Thomas Jefferson, Independence; Thomas Nelson, Finance; and John Marshall, Justice. American sculptor Thomas Crawford designed the monument. The cornerstone was laid on Washington’s Birthday, February 22, 1850, and the Washington statue was unveiled on February 22, 1858. Crawford died in 1857 after completing the statues of Washington, Jefferson and Henry. His American colleague Randolph Rogers executed the statues of Mason, Marshall, Nelson, and Lewis, as well as the allegorical figures, the last of which was put into place in 1869.
On the grounds north of the Capitol are bronze statues of William “Extra Billy” Smith, Governor of Virginia and Confederate Brigadier General; Confederate Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson; and Dr. Hunter Holmes McGuire, a respected Southern surgeon. In the southwest corner of the square near the Bell Tower is a seated statue of Edgar Allan Poe, who grew up in Richmond and returned years later to edit The Southern Literary Messenger.
Among those honored with memorial trees on the grounds are presidents Washington and Tyler, governors Colgate Darden, Charles Robb and Gerald Baliles, and Nobel peace laureate Martin Luther King, Jr. The newest memorial in Capitol Square honors Virginians who were active in the Civil Rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s.
The public area surrounding the 1788 Capitol was originally a weed-filled, virtually treeless open square with informal lanes and footpaths. The first formal landscape plan for Capitol Square was developed by Maximilian Godefroy in 1816. His formal walkways, public fountains and trees planted with geometric precision recalled the courtly gardens of 18th century France. In 1850 John Notman was hired to redesign the landscape of Capitol Square.
He introduced informal winding paths, additional public entrances and new plantings of trees in scattered groups. Notman’s plan was implemented in the 1850s, making Capitol Square one of the first major urban parks in the nation designed in the English picturesque style. The current landscaping of the grounds reflects various elements of previous 19th and 20th century designs used on the Square. As a planned urban park, Capitol Square is older than Central Park in New York City.
For more than two centuries, Capitol Square has been a place of political power and public inspiration, attracting local citizens and foreign dignitaries alike. The Marquis de Lafayette, a French General who served with distinction in the American Revolution, was an honored guest on the Square in 1824. In April 1865 Abraham Lincoln toured the Capitol and grounds near the end of the Civil War. Teddy Roosevelt addressed a crowd gathered in Capitol Square in October 1905. Winston Churchill was a guest at the Executive Mansion in October 1929. He returned to Capitol Square in March 1946 and gave a speech to a joint session of the Virginia General Assembly. Margaret Thatcher addressed the Virginia General Assembly on the topic of “liberty” in February 1995. In May of 2007, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II also visited the Capitol grounds and gave an address to a special joint session of the Virginia General Assembly.
Capitol Square has long served as a familiar setting for inaugurations. In February 1862 Jefferson Davis was inaugurated here as the only elected president of the Confederacy. For most of the 20th century, Virginia governors have taken their oaths of office in outdoor ceremonies every four years. In January 1990 Lawrence Douglas Wilder was sworn in as the first elected African-American Governor of a U.S. state and Mary Sue Terry, the first woman elected to executive office in Virginia, was inaugurated for her second term as Attorney General.
Preservation and Restoration
Did you know that Virginia’s Capitol Square is one of the oldest enclosed public parks with one of the most significant gardens in the United States, predating New York’s Central Park? Thanks to gifts from many generous donors, Capitol Square’s beautiful architecture and prominence in American history is being preserved through the Landscape Master Plan and the Pathway to Liberty, Adopt-A-Tree and Adopt-A-Bench projects. These projects, complement the Square’s unique design by retaining existing elements of its 1816 plan, reintroducing pathways from the 1850 plan and returning surfaces around the Capitol to their 1906 appearance.
Aided by the Capitol Square Preservation Council, chaired by Sally Guy Brown, past president of the Garden Club of Virginia, and with the support of the Joint Rules Committee of the General Assembly, the Virginia Capitol Foundation continues to seek gifts to restore and preserve the Square’s 12 landscaped acres while strengthening and supporting the case for the Square’s National Historic Landmark status.
- $10,000 – Adopt a tree and provide for its care, identification, and eventual replacement.
- $3,000 – Adopt an iron and cedar bench based on 19th-century benches on Capitol Square.
- $250 – Inscribe a brick on Virginia’s Pathway to Liberty, the sidewalk leading to the Capitol’s visitor center, and help welcome more than 100,000 annual visitors to Virginia’s “Front Door”.