1896 Narrative

In 1896, Charles Poindexter wrote a "Hand-Book and Guide" to the City of Richmond.  It was intended for tourists and describes many historical and noteworthy points of interest around the city.  One chapter, printed below, concerns the State Capitol Building and Capitol Square as it appeared in the late 19th Century.  The spelling and punctuation are unchanged from the original text.  Photos accompanying the text have been omitted.  Following the narrative is a brief description of changes made to the Capitol and Square since this 1896 writing.


Capitol Square

The Capitol Square is the centre of interest in Richmond, as the spot in and around which cluster many memorials of the State’s history.

The Square, enclosing about ten acres of ground, is an ideally beautiful park, adorned with trees, flowers and fountains.  From the terrace on which stands the Capitol building, the ground gently slopes on the south side, where it falls away to the level of the street below.  The appearance of the grounds now, with their smooth, grassy sward and intersecting walks, in a great contrast to their original aspect, as described by an antiquarian whose memory went back to the years of the last century.  The Square was then a rugged piece of ground, furrowed by deep ravines and overgrown with bushes and weeds.

Within the enclosure of the Square are the State Capitol, the Governor’s Mansion, the Library Building, the Washington Monument, and the Clay and Jackson Statues.

The Capitol is a building severely plain in architectural character, whose simple dignity owes nothing to ornamental decoration.  Its classic lines and noble portico are worthy of more fitting material than the plain brick, now stuccoed and painted, of which it is built, a material whose cheapness recommended it to the poverty of the generation that erected the building.  The general design for the building was furnished by Mr. Jefferson, while minister to France, who sent a model and plans taken from a famous Roman temple of antiquity.  The plans were adopted, “with some corrections not for the better,” as Mr. Jefferson says.  The building, begun in 1785, was finished in 1792.  With its associations of more than a century of Virginia history, it has been the scene and arena of much that has made that history illustrious.

One convention (1829-’30) that met in its halls included, among others only less famous, such members as ex-Presidents Madison and Monroe, Judge Marshall, and John Randolph.  Of this convention it has been said that the report of their proceedings and the Bible contain more good law than any other books in the world.  During the late war, by courtesy of the State authorities, the Confederate Congress held its sessions in the building.

In the basement of the building is the State Land Office, containing records of grants and patents dating back to 1620.  These are the original grants from which are derived the deeds to landed property within the Commonwealth.  On the floor above are the Rotunda and Legislative halls and clerks’ offices.

In the Rotunda is Houdon’s marble statue of Washington, a work justly pronounced to be worthy of its subject and of the great artist (the most famous sculptor of his time) who modelled it from Washington’s person, having come from France for the purpose.  Lafayette pronounced it to be “a fac-simile of Washington’s person.”

The act of Assembly voting the statue was passed in 1784, and the statue was erected in 1796.  The inscription on the base, penned by Mr. Madison, shows the estimate of Washington by his fellow-citizens, even before he added to his fame the glories of his Presidential administration.  The inscription reads:

“The General Assembly of Virginia have caused this statue to be erected as a monument of affection and gratitude of George Washington who, uniting to the endowment of the hero the virtues of the patriot, and exerting both in establishing the liberties of his country, has rendered his name dear to his fellow-citizens, and given to the world an immortal example of true glory.  Done in the year of Christ, one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, and in the year of the Commonwealth the twelfth.”

In a niche of the wall is a bust of Lafayette, also from the chisel of Houdon.  This is a replica of the original presented by the State of Virginia to the City of Paris.

In other niches are busts of Judge Marshall and General J. E. B. Stuart.

On opposite sides of the Rotunda are the halls of the Senate and House of Delegates.  On the wall of the Senate Chamber hangs Lamis’ painting, “The Storming of a Redoubt at Yorktown.”  This work of the French artist was presented to the State by Mr. W. W. Corcoran, of Washington.

The Confederate House of Representatives held its sessions in this chamber.  The Confederate Senate met in a room on the floor above, since remodelled for the Governor’s office.

In the hall of the House are full length portraits of Mr. Jefferson (attributed to George Catlin) and the Earl of Chatham, the English statesman and vindicator of the colonies.

On the third floor of the building are the offices of the Governor and the Secretary of the Commonwealth, and various committee rooms of the Legislature.  The State Library, formerly on this floor, and the collection of portraits that hung around the gallery, have been moved to the new Library Building.

In the gallery are preserved two interesting relics – the Speaker’s Chair and the Old Stove, from the Colonial House of Burgesses.  The tradition is that the chair was a present from Queen Anne.  In colonial days it was decorated with the royal arms of England, which were removed at the beginning of the Revolution.  For nearly a century after the independence of the State it was kept in use in the House of Delegates.

The Old Stove is an elaborate and artistic piece of iron work, decorated with the colonial arms and allegoric figures and legends.  Its maker (Buzaglo), who called it a “warming machine,” boasted of it as “a masterpiece, not to be equalled in all Europe.”  Made in London in 1770, it was a present to the House of Burgesses from Lord Botetourt, the Colonial Governor.  It was continued in use until superseded in recent years by the present steam-heating apparatus in the rotunda.

The fearful Capitol Disaster of April 27, 1870, was caused by the falling of the floor of a room in the northeast corner, used at the time by the Court of Appeals.  The session of the court was attended by a packed mass of people, drawn to hear the decision in a case that would settle the question of carpet-bag rule in the city of Richmond.  In those days of so-called reconstruction, the mayoralty had been usurped by a carpet-bagger, the contest against whom had nearly culminated in a bloody riot, only averted by the greatest prudence and forbearance.  Under the weight of the great crowd gathered to hear the decision of the case the floor of the court-room gave way, precipitating the mass of humanity into the Hall of Delegates below.  Sixty-five persons were killed and two hundred maimed and injured, many prominent citizens being among the victims of the disaster.

The view from the top of the Capitol commands a wide prospect of the city and surrounding country, and will repay the trouble of climbing the flights of steps leading to the roof platform.

The Washington Monument is generally conceded to be the finest, as it is the most elaborate, group of statuary in this country.  The corner-stone was laid with imposing ceremonies February 22, 1850, and the equestrian statue, crowning the monument, was unveiled and dedicated February 22, 1858.  The monument and most of the figures were the design and work of Thomas Crawford, born in New York, 1813.  His death in 1857 left the work unfinished, and the commission for completing it was given to Randolph Rogers, who made the figures of Nelson and Lewis, and the six allegorical figures on the outer pedestals.  The height of the monument from the ground to top of Washington’s hat is sixty feet; height of equestrian statue, twenty feet; height of the figures Jefferson, Henry, and others on the pedestals around the shaft of the monument, eleven feet.  The diameter of the circular base of the monument is eighty-six feet, and the cost of the work was about $260,000.  The statues in bronze represent –

George Washington, born 1732, died 1799.

Patrick Henry, the orator of the Revolution.

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence.

George Mason, author of the Virginia Bill of Rights.

John Marshall, Revolutionary officer, afterwards Chief Justice of the United States.

Thomas Nelson, General, and Revolutionary Governor of Virginia.

Andrew Lewis, distinguished officer in Indian Colonial wars and General in Revolutionary army.

The allegorical figures on the lower pedestals, typifying the leading facts and sentiments of the Revolution, are inscribed with the names of some of the important battles of that contest.  The design of the monument, as a whole, is a memorial to the Revolutionary era and its heroes.

The Henry Clay statue, in marble, under a pavilion, near the Washington Monument, was a gift to the State from the country-women of the great orator.  The statue (made by Hart) was dedicated in 1860.

The old Bell House, at the Franklin-street entrance of the Square, was the guard-house when, in former days, the State Guard (now obsolete) did police duty in the Square.

The Jackson Statue is on the north side of the avenue, between the monument and the Governor’s house.  This noble work in bronze, designed by the English sculptor Foley, was the gift of some of his countrymen, as an English testimonial in honor of the great Virginia soldier.  The base of the statue bears the memorial inscription:

“Presented by English gentlemen as a tribute of admiration for the soldier and patriot, Thomas J. Jackson, and gratefully accepted by Virginia in the name of the Southern people.  Done A.D., 1875, in the hundredth year of the Commonwealth. ‘Look! there is Jackson standing like a stone wall.’”

The dedication of the statue, October 26, 1875, was a memorable occasion, attended by thousands of ex-soldiers and citizens.

The Governor’s Mansion, the official residence of the Executive, is at the eastern end of the avenue.  Just below it is the Library Building, which is really and mainly an office building, in which are located most of the State officials.  The building, recently finished, is a beautiful example of classic architecture, adapted to modern use.  On the first floor are the offices of the Auditors, the Treasurer, and Adjutant General.  On the second floor are the Commissioner of Agriculture, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Attorney-General, Railroad Commissioner, and the office and court-room of the Court of Appeals.

The State Library occupies the third floor, reached by elevator.  The library is an exceedingly valuable collection of books, manuscripts, portraits, and historic relics.  Containing some forty thousand volumes, it is especially rich in American and English history, with valuable collections in most departments of literature, making it one of the best working libraries in the country.  The gallery of portraits, pictures, and relics is a large illustration of the history of the State.  Among them may be mentioned:  [list omitted]


Source: Richmond: An Illustrated Hand-Book and Guide with notices of the Battle-Fields, by C. Poindexter.  Richmond, Va.: J.L. Hill Printing Co. (1896), pp. 23-39.


Notes on subsequent changes

This narrative pre-dates the addition of the wings for the current House and Senate chambers (1904-06), and outdoor statues memorializing Dr. Hunter McGuire, Gov. William Smith, Edgar Allen Poe, and Harry F. Byrd, Sr.  The statue of Henry Clay was moved inside in the 1930s and the gazebo torn down.  A state office building was added in the southeast corner of the Square in the 1920s, below the Library Building (now the Old Finance Building) referred to in the text.

Inside the Capitol, busts of Virginia-born presidents were added in the Rotunda in the 1930s, where Lafayette's bust and the Houdon statue of Washington remain.  The Speaker's Chair and Old Stove were moved back to Williamsburg in the 1930s.  The Stove is on exhibit at the DeWitt Wallace Gallery at Colonial Williamsburg (and is well worth a visit).

Unchanged are the Bell Tower, Washington Monument, Jackson Statute, and Governor's Mansion.  The Library Building (since renamed) is still mainly a state office building, but with different offices.  The Library, Court of Appeals (now the Supreme Court), and Attorney General have moved to other locations nearby but outside of Capitol Square.  The Governor retains a ceremonial office on the Third Floor of the Capitol while his working office has moved to the Patrick Henry Building (1939) on the northern edge of Capitol Square.


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