With the proposed replacement or renovation of the General Assembly Building, which stands on the edge of Capitol Square, our planners and politicians, our architects and bureaucrats would do well to recall some monumentally bad designs for Capitol Square that came dangerously close to fruition. Like a proposal to radically modify the seat of government in the early 1970s, today’s discussion is sadly influenced by the need for parking. We should remember the admonition of Richmond’s pioneer architectural historian and preservationist, Mary Wingfield Scott, from 40 years ago, to beware those “bright little ideas” that forever change the face of our historic buildings and sites.
Almost since the first bureaucrat moved in, found his desk, sharpened his quill pens, and commenced the business of the Commonwealth of Virginia, the State Capitol has been short of room, to the point the State Armory was once housed in the attic. As early as the 1850s, Richmond architect Albert Lybrock drew up a plan to expand the Capitol to accommodate Virginia’s growing bureaucracy. The wings added between 1904 and 1906 changed the interior arrangement of the Capitol, but an increasingly complex government called for more State employees and politicians, many of who brought with them a growing number of automobiles.
A breathtakingly bad scheme was proposed in 1949: that the entire Capitol Square complex be abandoned and the State government be moved to the western end of Monument Avenue. There, on a tract roughly bordered by Glenside Avenue and Three Chopt Road, a campus of brutally unattractive buildings were to be erected for the State government, including an airport. While this congregation of buildings, incongruously looming above the trees at the end of Monument Avenue became the seat of government, the old Capitol would be converted to a “shrine to the South.” The proponents of this scheme were soon swamped by a tsunami of outrage and the plan was shelved.
A photograph of a model of the State Capitol, showing the 1953 “four wing” proposal to expand the building.
The next proposal was to simply clone the 1906 wings and stick them behind the original additions. This drew the immediate ire of Mary Wingfield Scott, who wrote, “This simple and beautiful building would be far more beautiful without the wings added 50 years ago, let alone a second sprouting.” Her withering condemnation of the quadruple-wing proposal included the politicians who cooked up the idea. Scott called for the protection of “one of the most beautiful and historic buildings in this country from the bright little ideas of those whose political power is out of proportion to their taste and knowledge.”
In 1972, the assault on the Capitol reached new heights with the allocation of $30 million to “improve” State facilities in, around, and even under Capitol Square. The plan for Capitol Square at first glance appears to be an attempt to conceal a suburban shopping mall by lifting Jefferson’s Capitol and tucking it in the hillside. While the 1970s are not a decade famous for architectural sensitivity, nevertheless the reaction to this grotesque insertion of 300,000 square feet of offices, meeting rooms, restaurants, and parking was as adamant as it was vocal. “In spite of assurances to the contrary from the three architectural, planning and consulting firms that drew up the proposed addition, it is doubtful that Mr. Jefferson would rejoice in the suggestion that his Capitol be plopped atop a cement pillbox,” wrote the Richmond News Leader. Richmonders, when they saw the perspective drawing of the design, wrote to the newspapers, describing the proposal as “absurd,” “idiotic,” and “just plain dumb.”
One of the most searing comments on the proposal to revamp Capitol Square was written by Pete Wyrick in his “Art and Urban Aesthetics” column in the News Leader in January 1973. Wyrick sarcastically proposed awards for missteps in Richmond planning and architecture, but reserved special recognition for the plan to undermine the Capitol that “eclipsed, by a substantial margin, any other examples of architectural banality, environmental desecration and just plain bad taste that has been previously seen or discussed in 1972.” Terming the design a “neo-Babylonian monstrosity,” Wyrick said the entire south slope of the Square “would be effaced, and in its place would be a Cecil B. De Mille inspired ziggurat crowned by the present capitol building.” “If this plan is put in effect it probably will have the single most disastrous effect upon Richmond’s architectural heritage since the conflagration of 1865,” Wyrick wrote, and that it represented “a thoroughly distasteful assault upon the sense and sensibilities of the citizens of Virginia.”
When one of the consulting architects boldly maintained that the proposal would actually enhance and preserve the Capitol and that Jefferson himself would probably approve of the scheme, Wyrick countered by urging the combined architects and politicians who proposed this mess be awarded “the International King Nebuchadnezzar II Architectural Medal.”
This model of the 1972 Capitol Square modifications is now in the collection of the Library of Virginia.
Mercifully, the plan to butcher Capitol Square was never put in place and the idea, despite backing by some powerful members of the legislature, died unmourned and unloved. The model of the proposal, showing its tiny toy trees groping through the concrete mesa above them and minuscule Virginians staggering through the shimmering heat of what was once the shady slopes of Capitol Square, was put in storage. In 1999, the model was moved to the collection of the Library of Virginia as being a very real, albeit unbuilt, part of the history of Capitol Square. Virginia Cavalcade magazine recorded the reactions of Richmonders who peered down through the Plexiglas lid while the model was wheeled across Broad Street. “”My God, when are they going to do that?” was the generally horrified reaction, a fitting epitaph for the latest in a series of plans for the Capitol Square that never was.”
Hopefully, those who steer the proposal to replace or modify the General Assembly Building will recall the horrid design from the early 1970s, lest they be doomed to repeat the missteps their predecessors so heartily endorsed 40 years ago. A “high rise” design has been mentioned as the replacement for the existing buildings. A tall building on the edge of Capitol Square will create a shadow that will fall across some of Virginia’s most important architecture and further hide the works of our lawmakers in a gloom ironically created by their own lair. If anything at all is needed in the halls of power in Capitol Square, it’s more sunshine - and the resolve to avoid the stupidities of the past.