May 9 – Virginia’s State Capitol and Executive Mansion

During the American Colonial period, Virginia's first capital was located in Jamestown, where the first legislative body, the Virginia House of Burgesses, met in 1619. The new government used four state houses at different times at Jamestown due to fires. The first Representative Legislative Assembly

convened on July 30, 1619 at the Jamestown Church

which served as the first Capitol.

With the decision to relocate the government inland to Williamsburg in 1699, a grand new Capitol Building

was completed in November 1705. Nearby was the grand Governor's Palace. It burned in 1747 and was replaced in 1753.

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 4th.

The Capitol at Williamsburg served until the American Revolutionary War began, when Governor Thomas Jefferson urged 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. It was eventually destroyed.

When it convened in Richmond on May 1, 1780, the legislature met in a makeshift building near Shockoe Bottom. By 1788, the "Old Capitol" where the Virginia Ratifying Convention met was at the New Academy by the Chevalier Quesnay.

Plans were begun for a new building to serve a new state, the Commonwealth of VIrginia. The site selected for a new, permanent building was on Shockoe Hill, a major hill overlooking the falls of the James River.

Thomas Jefferson is credited with the overall design of the new Capitol, together with French architec Charles-Louis Clérisseau. The design was modeled after the Maison Carrée at Nîmes in southern France

an ancient Roman Temple.  The only other state to accurately copy an ancient model is the  Vermont State House (which we hope to visit this coming summer), which based its portico on the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens.

The cornerstone was laid on August 18, 1785, with Governor Patrick Henry in attendance, prior to the completion of its design. In 1786, a set of architectural drawings and a plaster model

were sent from France to Virginia, where it was executed by Samuel Dobie. It was sufficiently completed for the General Assembly to meet there in October 1792.

Some interesting anecdotes:

  • It is one of only twelve Capitols in the United States without an "external" dome. (The others are the Capitols of Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New york, Nrth Dakota, Ohio and Tennessee)

  • Only the State of Maryland State House, completed in 1788, is older than Virginia's Capitol.
  • However, new Hampshire claims the distinction of having the oldest legislative chamber still in use … since 1819.

Aside from practical matters of adding windows, Jefferson made few changes to the exterior in his transformation of the building into the state capitol; engaged columns became pilasters, the corinthian order became ionic, and the portico shortened.

Two other important features were in the original design but have since been altered. The building initially had no front facing stair case and the pediment was punctuated by a central arched window and two flanking half arch windows. A stair case has been added and the pediment simplified, improvements on the original design.

The building’s interior features a two-story domed rotunda

containing Jean-Antoine Houdon’s full figure portrait of George Washington.

This 6'2" life-sized statue is the only one Washington ever posed for … and he never saw the finished statue.

Surrounding the statue are busts of the other seven Virginian presidents

Thomas Jefferson – 3rd President

James Madison – 4th President

James Monroe – 5th President

William Henry Harrison – 9th President

John Tyler – 10th President

Zachary Taylor – 12th President

Woodrow WIlson – 28th President

and one of the Marquis de LaFayette.

Looking down, one can see ancient fossils in the limestone floor tiles, a phenomenon we've seen only once before in Cheyene and the Wyoming State Capitol.

On the floor beneath the Rotunda, visitors are greeted by a statue of Henry Clay, The Great Compromiser

a bust of George Washington

and a bronze statue of Thomase Jefferson

holindg, not a copy of the Declaration of Independence but, rather a copy of the plans he submitted for the Capitol Building in which his stuatue now resides.

After a major structural failure in 1870 which resulted in the collapse of the floor above the House of Representatives and causing the deaths of over sixty people, the capitol faced demolition. Fortunately, the building was spared and renovation began. Two wings were added on either side of the Capitol in 1904 to provide space for the Senate and House of Representatives.

circa 1904

The Virginia State seal is embedded in the concrete entrance in front of the building.

Old Senate Chamber

This room originally served for more than 50 years as the General Court Room for Virginia's judiciary. The Senate, which previously met in a smaller room on the third floor, moved into this room around 1840. In late 1861, the room was remodeled as the "Hall of Congress" for the Confederate House of Representatives. The Senate of Virginia returned here in 1865 from an upstairs room and held its last session in this room in 1904

circa 1904

   Present Day  

The chamber contains several historical paintings

"Three Ships" – On may 14, 1607, three ships carrying 104 English settlers arrived at teh site theywould name Jamestown to establish the first English settlement in the New World.  The ships were the "Susan Constant" (center), the "Godspeed" (left) and the "Discovery" (right)

John Rolfe arrived in Jamestown along with 150 other settlers in 1610, as part of a new charter organized by the Virginia Company. He began experimenting with growing tobacco, eventually using seeds grown in the West Indies to develop Virginia’s first profitable export. In 1614, Rolfe married the daughter of a local Native American chieftain, Matoaka (better known by her childhood nickname, Pocahontas), who had been taken captive by the English settlers and converted to Christianity. The couple sailed to England with their infant son in 1616; seven months later, Pocahontas died as they prepared to travel home. Rolfe returned to Virginia, remarried and served a prominent role in the economic and political life of the colony until his death in 1622.

Pocahontas (born Matoaka, known as Amonute, circa 1596–1617) was a Native American woman notable for her association with the colonial settlement at Jamestown.  She was the daughter of Powhatan, the paramount chief of a network of tributary tribal nations in the Tidewater region of Virginia. In a well-known historical anecdote, she is said to have saved the life of a captive of the Native Americans, the Englishman John Smith in 1607 by placing her head upon his own when her father raised his war club to execute him. Some historians have suggested that this story, as told by Smith, is untrue.  Pocahontas was captured by the English during Anglo-Indian hostilities in 1613, and held for ransom. During her captivity, she converted to Christianity and took the name Rebecca. When the opportunity arose for her to return to her people, she chose to remain with the English. In April 1614, she married tobacco planter John Rolfe and in January 1615.  In 1616, the Rolfes traveled to London. Pocahontas was presented to English society as an example of the "civilized savage" in hopes of stimulating investment in the Jamestown settlement. She became something of a celebrity. In 1617, the Rolfes were ready to set sail for Virginia, but Pocahontas died at Gravesend of unknown causes and was buried in a church in Gravesend in the United Kingdom, but the exact location of her grave is unknown.


"Storming of a British Redoubt by American Troops at Yorktown" – A depiction of the decisive moments leading to the end of the Revolutionary War when American forces overwhelmned at Yorktown.  Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton, sword arm raised, leads his men to capture British Redoubt 10.  On the horizon the incoing French fleet (far right) have bottled up and ultimately defeat the trapped Britisn supply fleet (far left). 

John D. Rckerfeller, Jr, together with his wife financed the restoration on Colonial WIlliamsburg.

Old House of Representatives Chamber

The Old Hall of the House of Delegates (or Old House Chamber) is located off the Rotunda in the north end of the Capitol. At 76 feet in width, it has a dramatic coved ceiling, projecting cornices, and carved interior woodwork, which reflect the Capitol's Roman Classicism. Delegates assembled in rows of seats arranged around the Speaker's chair. As there was no other large meeting hall in the area, the room was also used for community events and church services in its early years, with Episcopal and Presbyterian congregations meeting on alternate Sundays. The Virginia House of Delegates met in the Old Hall regularly from 1788 until 1904.

circa 1860

circa 1904

Present Day

Replicas of Original Desks and Chairs

Prominently displayed in the Old House Chamber is the Commonwealth's official "Mace"

Each day, when the General Assembly is in session, 81-year-old Bud Roderick slips on a pair of white gloves. He transfers the Mace from the Old to the current House Chamber.  At precisely three minutes before the gavel bangs in the House of Delegates, Roderick — dressed always in a blue blazer, gray slacks and a white shirt — opens a glass case, tenderly removes a golden mace and carries it on extended arms into the chamber.

In a Capitol rich with pomp, few things embody it more than Virginia's solid silver, 24-karat-coated ceremonial mace.

Weighing in at 10 pounds plus, measuring nearly 4 feet long with a head that's shaped like a crown, the staff is a throwback to the days of kings and queens.

Statue of Jefferson Davis at the exact spot in the House Chamber where he accepted the command of the Confederate Armies

The Chamber is also the repository for an amazing collection of bust of famous Virginians

Alexander Stevens – Vice Presdient of the Confederacy

Anderw Lewis – An Irish-born American pioneer, surveyor, and soldier of Colonial Virginia. A colonel of militia during the French and Indian War, and brigadier general in the American Revolutionary

Cyrus McCormack – An American inventor and businessperson, the founder of the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, which later became part of the International Harvester Company in 1902

Fitzhugh Lee – A Confederate cavalry general in the American Civil War, the 40th Governor of Virginia, diplomat, and United States Army general in the Spanish–American War

George Mason – a Virginia planter and politician, and a delegate to the U.S. Constitutional COnvention of 1787, one of three delegates who refused to sign the Constitution. His writings have been a significant influence on political thought and events, including substantial portions of th Fairfax Resolves of 1774, the Virginia Declaration of RIghts of 1776, and his Objections to this Constitution of Government (1787) in opposition to ratification of the constitution. The Virginia Declaration of Rights, which Mason principally authored, served as a basis for the United Staets Bill of Rights, of which he has been deemed the father.

Georeg Wythe – The first American law professor, a noted classics scholar and Virginia judge, as well as a prominent opponent of slavery.

James Ewell Brown "Jeb" Stuart was a United States Army officer from the U.S. state of Virginia, who later became a Confederate States Army general during the American Civil War

Jefferson Davis – The President of the Confederary

John Marshall – The fourth chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1801. He is largely responsible for establishing the Supreme Court's role in federal government.

Joseph Eggleston Johnston – A career U.S. Army officer, serving with distinction in the Mexican-American War and Seminole Wars, and was also one of the most senior general officers in the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War

Matthew Muray

Meriwether Lewis – An American explorer, soldier, politician, and public administrator, best known for his role as the leader of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, also known as the Corps of Discovery, with William Clark

Patrick Henry – An American attorney, planter and politician who became known as an orator during the movement for independence in Virginia. He served as the first and sixth post-colonial Governor of Virginia, from 1776 to 1779 and from 1784 to 1786.  Henry led the opposition to the Stamp Act of 1765 and is remembered for his "GIve me liberty or give me death!" speech. Along with Sam Adams and Thomas Paine, he is regarded as one of the most influential champions of Republicanism and an enthusiastic promoter of the American Revolution and its fight for independence.

Richard Henry Lee – An American statesman from Virginia best known for the motion in the Second Continental Congress calling for the colonies' independence from Great Britain

Born in Virginia, Sam Houston – Became a lawyer, congressman and senator in Tennessee. After moving to Texas in 1832, he joined the growing conflict between U.S. settlers and the Mexican government and became commander of the local army. On April 21, 1836, Houston and his men defeated Mexican General Antonio López de Santa Anna at San Jacinto to secure Texan independence. He was voted president in 1836 and again in 1841, then served as a senator after Texas became a state in 1845. Despite his pro-slavery views, he believed in preserving the Union. He became governor in 1859, but was removed from office after the secession of Texas in 1861.

Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson –  A Confederate general during the American Civil Warr, and the best-known Confederate commander after General Robert E Lee.  Confederate pickets accidentally shot him at the Battle of Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863. The general survived but lost an arm to amputation but he died of complications from pneumonia eight days later. His death was a severe setback for the Confederacy, affecting not only its military prospects, but also the morale of its army and of its general public. Military historians consider Jackson to be one of the most gifted tactical commanders in U.S. history.

Jefferson Room

This room contains a large full-length portrait of Thomas Jefferson painted by George Catlin,

who copied an original portrait by Thomas Sully now on display at West Point.  Jefferson once wrote that "architecture is my delight." After the Revolution, Virginians instinctively turned to Jefferson and asked him to design a new state Capitol, combining "economy with elegance and utility."  The plaster model on display (photo abbove), built by Jean-Pierre Fouquet, shows Jefferson's original architectural intent for the new Capitol of Virginia, which he designed in 1785-86. Jefferson designed this building to be "a temple of sovereignty." He hoped to impress foreign visitors, raise our reputation in the eyes of the world, and inspire citizens of Virginia.

circa 1865

Present Day

Caled variiously an "Act of Pariament" clock, tavern clock or coaching-inn clock, this eighteenth century dial clock was a gift to the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1947 by Lady Astor.  Born in Danville, Virginia, Lady Astor (Nee: Nancy Wincher Langhorne) married William Wladorf Astor, her second husband, the heir to one of the largest American fortunes at the time, and lived exclusively in England.  In 1919 she became the first woman to take a seat in the Birtish House of Commons.

Current Senate Chamber

Current House of Representatives Chamber

Close by and within the Capitol Complex sits Virginia's Executive Mansion.

It has been home to governors of the Commonwealth since 1813 and is the oldest governor's residence in the country still used for its original purpose.  Designed in tehe Federalist style, the mansion is located close to the former site of a modest frame structure that served as the home to Virginia's governors after the Capital moved from Williamsburg to Richmond in 1780.

circa 1905

For more than 200 years, the mansion had welcomed many distinguished visitors including the Marquis de Lafayette, Sir Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth II, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and several U.S. presidents; Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barak Obama.  While three former Virginia Governors went on to become president, only John Tyler used the residence during his term.

Entrance Hall

The Entrance Hall provides sweeping views thought the mansion’s central interior.  The 14’ high ceiling and plaster cornices adorned with neoclassical motifs are designed to capture the idea that the Governor’s house provides “honor and dignity to the state”. 

Old Governor’s Office

During the 19th century, this room was the most important in the mansion as it served as the governor’s working office and continued to do so until 1906.  Originally furnished with only a pine table and a corner washstand, the study has been restored to a more elegant appearance with wallpaper and carpet in archival patterns from the early 19th century.  In 1906, Governor Andrew Montague permanently moved his office to the Capitol.  Today, the governor’s working office was moved to the Patrick Henry Building.

Table owned by Patrick Henry

Black Hawk, (17671838) was the leader of a faction of the Sauk, Fox, Kickapoo and Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) peoples. Black Hawk and his followers contested the disposition  of 50 million acres of territory that had supposedly been granted to the United States by tribal spokesmen in the Treaty of St. Louis in 1804. His decision to defy the government and attempt to reoccupy tribal lands along the Rock River in Illinois resulted in the brief but tragic Blackhawk War of 1832.  He is flanked by his son (right) and mentor (left).

One of several painted lanp bases

Box contains a silver humadore

Ladies Parlor

During the early history of the mansion, the Ladies Parlor was used as a waiting room for female visitors while their male counterparts met across the hall with the Governor.  Today, in the Parlor, there are three sewing tables indicative of the type of activity that would have occurred during the time the women were waiting.  The room features a number of historic paintings and a box piano from the 1830 which belonged to Governor James Barbour (1812-1814),

the first governor to reside in the mansion. 


The Ballroom, because of its impressive size, was once two rooms (a formal parlor and dining room) divided by a wall featuring a pocket door in between.  The wall was removed in 1906, creating a large open room and ideal gathering space for the Commonwealth’s civic, political and cultural life.  The ballroom was the site of a large fire during the holiday season in 1926, when Governor Elbert Trinkle’s 5-year old son accidentally set fire to the family holiday Christmas tree with a sparkler.

Pocahontas (age 19)

Dining Room

The spacious dining room is an addition to the mansion’s original four-square floor plan.  Added in 1906, the oval-shaped space once featured a large fireplace that was removed after the 1926 fire.  When fully extended, the dining table seats twenty-six.  By tradition, the Governor sits at the southern end of the table in recognition of Virginias distinction as a southern state.  Of note is the custom-made rug with various symbols of Virginia including the state seal; state flower, the Dogwood; and state flower, the scallop shell.  Just off the dining room is a cozy breakfast nook that was once a screened-porch. 

The Executive Mansion’s 51-piece heirloom silver service from the USS Virginia (BB-13), which was decommissioned in 1920, is now displayed in the dining room and throughout the first floor.   

Renderings of the U.S. presidents from Virginia adorn the base of the bowl (Woodrow WIlson missing as tehe bowl was manufactured prior to him becoming president)

Gillette Garden

Charles Freeman Gillette, nationally recognized as one of the premier landscape architects associated with the restoration and re-creation of historic gardens in the upper South and especially Virginia, including the formal garden at the Commonwealth's Executive Mansion. Gillette established a regional style—known as the "Virginia Garden"—characterized by its understated classicism and attention to detail.

Slave Quarters and Valentine-Memorial Garden

The mansion’s original grounds included a separate cook house (with a tunnel leading to the main house), smoke house, stable, ice house and carriage and cannon houses.  Today, only the cook house and carriage house remain.  Above the cook house were the slave quarters. 

Located behind the cook house is the Valentine-Jackson Memorial Garden, dedicated to the Valentine and Jackson families who were enslaved at the mansion from 1837-1840. 

Excerpts from letters written by the family members are displayed on the garden walls in honor of their memory and contributions to the Commonwealth.

As with most state houses, the grounds surrounding the Capitol have an number of statues and monuments … and Virginia is no exception.

George Washington Equestrian Monument

The Washington Monument features a 21-foot, 18,000-pound (8,200 kg) bronze statue of George Washington on horseback.

The base of the monument (finished after the Civil War) includes statues of six other noted Virginians who took part in the Revolutionary War; Thomase Jefferson, Patrick HJenry, Amdrew Lewis, John Marshall, George Mason and Thomas Nelson, Jr.


Zero Milestone Market – The three-foot tall stone and bronze marker is the official Virginia highway point of measurement of distances from Richmond for Virginia.

The Virginia Civil Rights Memorial is a monument commemorates protests which helped bring about school desegregation in the state.

R.R. Moton High School, an all-black high school in Farmvile, VA, founded in 1923, suffered from terrible conditions due to underfunding. The school did not have a gymnasium, cafeteria or teachers' restrooms. Teachers and students did not have desks or blackboards, and due to overcrowding, some students had to take classes in an immobilized, decrepit school bus parked outside the main school building. The school's requests for additional funds were denied by the all-white school board.  In response, on April 23, 1951, a 16-year-old student named Barbara Rose Johns covertly organized a student general strike. She forged notes to teachers telling them to bring their students to the auditorium for a special announcement. When the school's students showed up, Johns took the stage and persuaded the school to strike to protest poor school conditions. Over 450 walked out and marched to the homes of members of the school board, who refused to see them. Thus began a two-week protest.  The protest led to a court case where Virginia civil rights lawyers Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson brought suit against the school board.  Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County was eventually one of the four cases combined into Brown v. Board of Education, the famous case in which the U.S. SUpreme Court, in 1954, officially overturned racial segregation in U.S. public schools.

Edgar Allen Poe Statue

Harry F. Byrd, Jr, an ardent segregationist

General Stonewall Jackson

The red brick Bell Tower has stood since 1824.  It was once used for a guard house and the bell warned of fires.  During the Civil War, the bell sounded when Federal troops approached the city.  More recently, it was an office for Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb (1978-82), and the Capitol Square Preservation Council.  It now serves as a Visitor Center for VIrginia Tourism.

An iron fence surrounds the 14-acre Capitol Complex including the State House and Governor's Executive Mansion.  Note the main posts with the fasces, a bundle of rods tied around the shaft of an axe, which had been used by the ancient Romans to symbolize unity and civic authority.

Also of interest were the architecture of the Old City Hall,

two building-mounted clocks,

St. Paul's Episcopal Church,

a carillon,

and the Valentine First Freedom Center commemorates and educates about freedom of religion and conscience as proclaimed in Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. This 1786 Virginia law, brilliantly shepherded through the General Assembly by James Madison, laid the ideological groundwork for the religion clauses of the First Amendment and has served as a model for other state constitutions and constitutions around the world. It is considered the essential counterpart to the Declaration of Independence.

The Valentine First Freedom Center teaches the extraordinary history that led to Virginia’s declaration of non-establishment and free exercise, and shows how these Jeffersonian principles continue shedding light on every public matter involving religious liberty. The center's current location is positioned on the same site where Virginia’s temporary capitol stood in Richmond and where the statute was enacted.


Our only disappointment was that we didn't have sufficient time to take in more of Richmond.  However, that presents us with a "excuse" to return in the future!





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