Thursday, March 11, 2021

Q: What happened to Richmond’s 1818 City Hall?

A: The lawyers killed it.

It all began as a rumor, a tip, a story somebody told somebody. One of the rarest architectural drawings in Richmond had been spotted in an office at City Hall, maybe a year before, in 1995. I was the archivist for architectural records at the Library of Virginia, so on a cold and rainy Friday afternoon, I went to see if I could find it.

 “Anybody see a drawing around here that looks like this?” I asked a series of disinterested people in the Planning Department. I was passing around the last formal sighting of the document in Alexander Weddell’s 1932 Richmond Virginia in Old Prints. One guy, shrugging on his coat, glanced at my open book and said, “I think that’s in Bill’s office – but he’s gone for the weekend.” Seeing my expression drop, he said, “wait a minute” and went into an office and started rummaging in a pile of papers on top of a file cabinet. “Yeah - here you go,” he said, and handed me the original 1818 plan of the first Richmond City Hall.

Robert Mills’ plan for the first Richmond City Hall, 1816.
(The Library of Virginia)

“Well, well….” I stammered, looking at the drawing in my hands, and half kidding said, “Ah, I guess I’ll just go on back to the Library with this…” and the guy gathered up his stuff and said, “Yeah, you better. No telling what will happen to it here,” and walked out the door and left me standing there. I carefully put the drawing in my copy of Weddell’s book, put the book under my jacket, and ran back to the LVA before anybody could stop me. The following year the same drawing was published in The Common Wealth – Treasures from the Collection of the Library of Virginia.

As a document of national importance from the hand of one of America’s premier early architects, at first glance the little plan of a building is not too impressive. The little sheet is about the size of a legal pad: only 10 x 14 inches. Nevertheless, it testifies to a variety of important elements in the history of Richmond, about one of our first and finest architects, is an amazing example of the draftsman’s craft and is a unique record of a building that was destroyed 149 years ago. All architectural drawings hold within their sheets the secrets of their birth: the building’s decoration, its underpinnings, and the illustrated engineering that moves it from paper to brick and stone. Incredibly, this sheet in the collection of the Library of Virginia also testifies to the structural changes that literally killed it and led to the demolition of this once-admired building.


Richmond’s 1818 City Hall, shown here in 1865. The spire on the left is Albert West’s Broad Street Methodist Church (1861). Note in the foreground Federal troops stationed in Capitol Square using the fence to dry their clothes. (Library of Congress)


The plan of the building came from the hand of Robert Mills, one of America’s first professional architects. Mills’ most famous commission was the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., whose construction was begun in 1848, but he had a long list of buildings he designed up and down the East Coast in the first half of the nineteenth century.


Architect Robert Mills, (1781-1855). (Library of Congress)

Mills had perfected his craft under the apprenticeship under some early American architects including B. Henry Latrobe and Thomas Jefferson, sometimes serving as Jefferson’s draftsman. Ironically, much of the astonishing skill and ability of Mills at the drafting table was never meant to be seen, and instead make up an entirely separate vocabulary of information hidden in plain sight.

When Mills noted in his pocket diary that on March 18, 1816, he met with Richmond commissioners who had approved his plan for the “Court House,” this plan of the building must have been among those drawings he displayed for them. As Mills spread out the sheets, City officials probably never noticed the tiny details in the drawings in front of them. Solid masonry walls and columns at first glance appear to be simply a watercolor wash indicating their material, but a close look with backlighting shows these areas are actually shaded with Mills’ precise lines, one after another, drawn by hand with machine-like precision. Perhaps even more astonishing are the galaxy of tiny holes, known as “pricking,” created by a needle-like drafting tool called a “protracting pen,” these holes allowed the architect to layout or copy a drawing by making these holes at every junction of every line. There are almost a thousand of them in this sheet of paper, so small they are only visible by backlighting the drawing under magnification. How Mills was able to accomplish this amazing display of draftsmanship with the lighting available in his day defies comprehension.


A magnified and back-lit view of Mills’ plan for the City Hall. Notice the precise diagonal lines on this drawing indicating masonry, and the tiny holes at the juncture of each line made by the architect’s needle-like protracting pen.  


The City Hall was constructed as designed, and Richmond’s City Council and courts began using the building in December 1818. Mills’ most famous Richmond commission, Monumental Church at 1224 East Broad Street, was completed four years before. It is interesting to imagine the scene on Richmond’s grand boulevard with these two domed temples within sight of each other, one to secular law and governance, and one as a memorial to the dead, but these two buildings livened the Richmond skyline for decades.


Robert Mills’ Monumental Church (1812-1814) on Broad Street.


Visitors to Monumental Church today can admire the interior features: the wooden dome above their heads, the light coming down from far above from the lantern in the dome, and the gallery held up by thin columns and know that the main courtroom in Mills’ City Hall must have looked very similar. Information about the interior of City Hall is scant, with vague references to the flags that hung inside as compared to the austere interior of Monumental Church. Nevertheless, the light filtering down from the large lantern at the top of the dome must have been much the same.


Interior of Monumental Church, showing the lantern, or skylight, in the top of the dome.


The French hero of the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette, visited Richmond as part of his triumphant tour of the United States in 1824. His reception at City Hall that October was one of the events from Richmond’s history recorded in a series of dioramas created for the Valentine Museum for the bicentennial celebrations in 1937. In this diorama scene, Lafayette emerges from his carriage in Capitol Street and is applauded by excited Richmonders who line the street and crowd the windows of City Hall.


The Marquis de Lafayette arriving at Richmond City Hall in October 1824. (The Valentine Museum)


For decades, the credit for the design of Richmond’s 1818 City Hall has been muddied by statements by French architect Maximilian Godefroy. Godefroy was a self-promotor whose work in Richmond survives only as a partly-executed plan for the landscaping of Capitol Square. The straight lane that runs from the Washington Monument to the Governor’s Mansion is the last trace of Godefroy in Richmond. In an 1816 letter describing the bitter falling out that he had with fellow architect B. Henry Latrobe involving a commission in Baltimore, Godefroy also lashes out at his rival, Mills. Godefroy claimed to have been given the ”painful” task of transforming Mills’ Richmond City Hall into a “regular edifice.”


This is typical of Godefroy’s self-promotion and, although this claim is often repeated by historians as late as a major biography of Mills in 2001, it is completely untrue. Tellingly, even the French architect’s biographer, John Bryan, had to admit that Godefroy’s “constant exaggerations -- these are all verbal constructions, some of which Godefroy himself came to believe…” A thorough search of City of Richmond records show Godefroy was never hired or paid for any work and indeed his name does not appear in the City government records at all.


Comparison of Mills’ drawing and photographs of the City Hall confirm Mills as the architect of City Hall, despite the complicity of major historians in the myth that Godefroy was in any way an influence, let alone the designer of the building. As befitting someone who played so lightly with the truth, Godefroy’s eventual fate is unknown other than he returned to France and died there. 


Maximilian Godefroy (1765-1838?) From The Architecture of Maximilian Godefroy, 1974.


The first threat to the structural integrity of City Hall occurred when a committee appointed by the Hustings Court recommended in 1850 that another large room be created on the north side of the City Hall for additional courtroom space: “the present Sergeant’s office, the room on the same side of the building formerly used occasionally as a Courtroom and the open space between the two be thrown into one for the use of the Hustings Court.” This change eliminated two load-bearing walls in the upper story of the building, walls that served as buttresses for the central drum of the City Hall.


In 1858, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper ran an illustration which showed an interior on the second floor on July 3, 1858 being used as a space where citizens could pay their respects to the remains of President Monroe before his Richmond reburial. In the picture, Richmonders are shown filing in the room to look down on Monroe’s coffin, draped with a flag and seemingly held up on one end by a broken chair. The scene is lit by the three large, south-facing windows shown in Mills’ plan. The newspaper illustration is interesting in that it shows the interior as not only a civic space, but a richly decorated and detailed ceremonial one as well, heavily draped and lined with portraits.


Richmonders pay their respects at the coffin of James Monroe at the Richmond City Hall. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, July 17, 1858.


Richmond Dispatch, June 20, 1854.


Visitors to Monumental Church are often impressed with the odd acoustics of the space, and apparently, the courtroom in City Hall suffered from the same effect, with the lawyer’s dogged prosecutions, petitions, and fervent defenses rapidly dissipating into the thin air of Mills’ domed courtroom. In October, 1853, members of the Richmond Bar submitted a petition to the Court, asking for changes to make the round room a more orator-friendly space. “President Myers stated that the City Engineer had under a consideration a plan for the room….”


Richmond’s City Engineer was Washington Gill (1819-1902), formerly an employee of a local canal company, who had apparently come up with a fix for the central domed courtroom on the cheap. “The Committee have also had an estimate carefully prepared by Mr. Gill…” recorded the Committee secretary, “…and are agreeably disappointed in the aggregate amount, which they certainly apprehended would have been much greater.” By the following June, workmen were making their ill-advised, low-cost modifications to the City Hall.


Faint pencil lines (here outlined in orange) on the original Mills plan of City Hall show the modifications that were made in 1854 that resulted in the eventual deterioration of the building.

These modifications and their consequences were ruefully recalled twenty years later in the Richmond Dispatch: “The building, however, has been altered, and in making the change which was ordered it very probably received its mortal wound. The old court-room was circular, the walls of solid brick, and supported a dome of great weight. Now, it was said that the circular shape of the room made speech inaudible, and the lawyers and orators making a dead set at the circle, they succeeded in squaring it. This, it is now believed, broke the back, so to speak, of the edifice. Its chief props are gone, and time discloses a weakness that has caused the present alarm.”


Always second fiddle: Richmond’s City Hall on the left peeps out from under the frame of this 1860 painting of the Virginia State Capitol attributed to Howard Montague. (LVA)


The consequences of having a round dome supported by a square building was soon evident to Mayor Joseph Mayo, who irritably presided over City government in a building that would not keep the rain out. “A leak in the roof of the City Hall is seriously injuring the plastering and floors, and needs prompt attention,” recalled one history of Richmond during the Civil War: “Yesterday morning the water was dripping through the ceiling into the Mayor's courtroom, very much to the an­noyance of the members of the bar and others having business with His Honor.” Despite its tattered condition, the City Hall was still an important and symbolic objective for Federal troops when they entered Richmond on April 5, 1865.


A Civil War-era City of Richmond fifty-cent bill, showing the Richmond City Hall.


In the years that followed the Civil War, the venerable City Hall continued to decline from the modifications made in the 1850s. The whole issue of Richmond’s older buildings came to the fore in a tragic manner when a courtroom in the nearby Capitol collapsed on April 20, 1870, killing more than 60 people and injuring dozens more. Grieving Richmonders had to only look across Capitol Street to the now leaking and tilting City Hall to be reminded of the dangers of their historic if deteriorating civic buildings.


Richmond City Hall, 1865. In the background is the steeple of First Presbyterian Church. (Library of Congress)


A growing number of complaints addressed to the City Council began in the years following the Capitol disaster. “I feel it again to be my duty to present the matter before you for your action,” insisted Richmond judge Abe Guigon, “…that you may take such action about it as will prevent another catastrophe as filled our city and State with mourning not long ago.” Judge Guigon refused to hold court in the building, pointing out that the western wall of the building was held in place only by rods and the whole structure could collapse. He also made the point that the City Hall was the repository of Richmond’s titles and deeds and the destruction of the building would be not only an economic but a legal disaster. He demanded the convening of a Grand Jury of Richmond architects and engineers to determine what should be done.


Richmond Dispatch, February 2, 1874.


The Grand Jury, composed of local experts such as architect Albert Lybrock, City Engineer Wilfred Cutshaw, and several Richmond engineers and builders was formally canvassed after a complete inspection of the City Hall from top to bottom. The result was a grim litany of condemnation: “1st Question: Do you consider the building in its present condition unsafe for the purposes for which it is used? Answer: Aye. 2nd Question: Do you think the present building should be repaired? Answer: No.”

On February 7, 1874, Richmond architect Albert West commented on the City Hall and recalled meeting Robert Mills, who, “… told me he was the architect of the building… I therefore determined to examine the record, and from it have made the following extract.” Reading the Journal of the Common Hall (the predecessor to today’s City Council), West found the entry where Mills was hired on June 6, 1814. West also correctly concluded:

The building is a beautiful specimen of Roman Doric order of architecture, and as originally built was of ample strength; but the alterations made in it some fifteen to eighteen years ago materially damaged its strength and durability, which added to the ordinary decay of time, has brought it to its present condition.

On the same day, Albert West paid tribute to the skill of Robert Mills, the Richmond Dispatch brought the news to its readers: “The City Hall is at last ordered to execution. The testimony is all against it, and is damming. No man - architect, councilman, judge, policeman, officer…dares to say a word in its defense, and down the old building must come.” On the afternoon of June 16, 1874, the last City functionary moved their office and the doors were closed, ending more than a half-century of service to the people of Richmond.

Demolition of the City Hall began almost immediately, but the Panic of 1873 had created a national financial depression, and in cash-strapped Richmond, building a replacement was nothing more than wishful thinking. A cheap, low office building was constructed in the next block which would serve Richmond as its City Hall for another 20 years. The site of City Hall was a vacant lot that became a public gathering place and the scene of concerts and hot air balloon ascensions.


F. W. Beers Illustrated Map of the City of Richmond (1876) from the Library of Congress, showing the vacant site of Mills’ City Hall (“Old City Hall Lot”) and the temporary City offices in the next block to the west.


Concerning the demolition of the City Hall, Richmond architectural historian, Mary Wingfield Scott, noted “the wreckers found it so solidly constructed that they had difficulty in tearing it down.” How does one reconcile this statement with the report of the Grand Jury? It may actually describe the solid condition of the eastern (unaltered) side of the City Hall in contrast to the heavily modified rotunda and western wall of the building. Because it retained the fabric and sinews that Mills intended, the east portion of the City Hall withstood the wrecker’s tools. On the other hand, those walls that were the victims of less-skilled hands in the 1850s practically fell of their own weight.


Demolition of Richmond City Hall, 1874. (Library of Congress)


City Engineer Wilfred Cutshaw, always short of appropriations to fund his office, reused the steps from the City Hall and ordered them placed as part of the foundation for the new reservoir being built in what we today call Byrd Park. The bricks shown being carefully cleaned and stacked in the photograph above were sold by the City. One building known to have used them is 3 South Twelfth Street, which still stands. You can go there today, 200 years after they were first laid, and run your hands over the last surviving material of Robert Mills’ once-grand building.


The side wall of 3 South 12th Street in Richmond, built in 1874 with bricks salvaged from the demolition of the 1818 City Hall.

An even more remarkable case of survival is that of Robert Mills’ original plan for the City Hall. The little sheet tells the story of the building from the very first day that Mills chose a sheet of paper, positioned it to the light, and began to draw. Not only is the pre-natal structure documented, but there is evidence, like that left at a murder, on the sheet as well. The light penciled lines by other hands in the 1850s reveal the slow structural poison that doomed Richmond’s 1818 City Hall.

- Selden Richardson



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