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Virginia State Capitol
Virginia State Capitol is a building in Richmond, the city which is the third State Capital of Virginia. It houses the oldest legislative body in the United States, the Virginia General Assembly. Although it was completed in 1788, and is over 215 years old, primarily due to fires in the Colonial period, the current State Capitol building is the eighth built to serve as Virginia's State House.
Note: "Capital" denotes the location of the seat of government, while the "Capitol" is a building.
Virginia's State Capitals
During the colonial period prior to the formation of the United States, Virginia's first State Capital was Jamestown, where the first legislative body, the Virginia House of Burgesses met in 1619. The new government went through four state houses at Jamestown due to fires.
After the last fire at Jamestown in 1698, a group of students at the College of William and Mary proposed that the capital be moved to a more healthy location on higher ground near their school. In 1699, the State Capital was officially relocated to Middle Plantation, which was soon renamed Williamsburg.
A grand new Capitol building was constructed by Henry Cary, a contractor finishing work on the College of William and Mary's Wren Building (the legislature's temporary home). The Colonial Capitol building was a two-story H-shaped structure, actually two buildings connected by an arcade. The first floor of the west building was for the General Court and the colony's secretary, the first floor of the east for the House of Burgesses and its clerk. It was completed in November, 1705. Nearby was the grand Governor's Palace .
The building that stands today in Colonial Williamsburg is the third Capitol on that site. Cary built the first Capitol without fireplaces. In 1723, chimneys were added for fireplaces to help keep the Capitol dry. On January 30, 1747 the building burned and only some walls and the foundation remained.
Governor William Gooch urged that the Capitol be rebuilt, but many legislators preferred moving the government to a city more accessible to trade and navigation. In the meantime, the burgesses met again at the nearby Wren Building. Finally, in November, 1748, reconstruction of the Capitol was approved (by only two votes: 40 to 38). The burgesses met inside for the first time on November 1, 1753.
In this building Patrick Henry delivered his Caesar-Brutus speech against the Stamp Act on May 29, 1765. Henry, George Washington, George Mason, George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, and others played their parts in the legislative wars that ended in revolution. As fighting erupted in the North, the building rang to the debates over Mason's Declaration of Rights, his Virginia constitution, and Jefferson's first attempt at a bill for religious freedom.
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.
The Capitol at Williamsburg served until the American Revolutionary War broke out, when Governor Thomas Jefferson urged it that the capital be relocated to Richmond. The building was last used as a capitol on December 24, 1779, when the General Assembly adjourned to reconvene in 1780 at the new capital, Richmond.
About 150 years later, through the efforts of Reverend Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin and John D. Rockefeller Jr., both the Capitol and the massive Governor's Palace at Williamsburg were thoroughly reconstructed and are both major attractions at Colonial Williamsburg.
The current State Capitol building
The site selected for a new, permanent building was on Shockhoe Hill, a major hilltop overlooking the falls of the James River. Thomas Jefferson is credited with the architectural design of the new Virginia State Capitol building, which was modeled after the Maison Carrée at Nîmes in southern France, an ancient Roman temple. Jefferson had the architect, C.L. Clerisseau substitute Ionic for the more ornate Corinthian column designs of the prototype in France. The cornerstone was laid on August 18, 1785, with Governor Patrick Henry in attendance. It was sufficiently completed for the General Assembly to meet there in October, 1788.
American Civil War
The building also served as the Capitol of the Confederacy during the American Civil War (1861-1865). The State Capitol Building, the adjacent Virginia Governor's Mansion , and the White House of the Confederacy (about 3 blocks away to the north) were spared when departing Confederate troops were ordered to burn the city's warehouses and factories, and fires spread out of control in April, 1865. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln toured the Capitol building during his visit to Richmond about a week before his assassination in Washington, DC later that month.
After the end of the American Civil War, during the Reconstruction period, Virginia was under military rule for almost 5 years, ending in January, 1870. In the following months, a dispute over leadership of the City of Richmond government led to the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals holding a hearing on April 27, 1870 on the large courtroom second floor of the Virginia State Capitol Building. Several hundred people crowded in. Before the proceedings could begin, the gallery (balcony) gave way and fell to the courtroom floor. This added weight, in addition to the crowd already there, caused the entire courtroom floor to give way, falling some 40 feet into the Hall of the House of Delegates. The injured stumbled, crawled, or were carried out onto the Capitol lawn in the mayhem which followed. 62 men were killed and 251 were injured. There were no women believed to have been present when the collapse occurred. The dead included a grandson of Patrick Henry, and 3 members of the General Assembly. Injured included both men contesting the Richmond mayoral position, the Speaker of the House of Delegates, a judge, and ex-governor Henry H. Wells .
Rebuilding, expansion, renovation
Despite calls for the building's demolition, the damage from the tragedy in 1870 was repaired. In 1906, two wings (not in the original plans) were added to the east and west ends of the building to provide much-needed additional space. Early in the 21st century, major remodeling and repair work began.
Dabney, Virginius (1990) , University Press of Virginia; Charlottesville
- Colonial Williamsburg official website
- Virginia State Capitol - Online virtual tours and more - official website
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