“They live in the same neat manner, dress after the same modes, and behave themselves exactly as the gentry in London. . . . The habits, life, customs, computations, etc., of the Virginians are much the same as about London, which they esteem their home.” —Hugh Jones, in a dispatch to London, 1724
Due in part to the success of Colonial Williamsburg, the English Renaissance–Georgian Revival style is fixed in the public imagination as the hallmark of Virginian architecture. Yet, while it’s true that Virginians have tended to favor English prototypes, they also have made use of all the polyglot styles with which the country has become enamored, from Gothic Revival and Romanesque to Beaux Arts and International styles.
Since 1607, when Captain John Smith first documented architecture in Virginia by sketching the wicker shelter of the Native American leader Powhatan, many major American architects – including Virginia’s own Thomas Jefferson – have built in the state: William Buckland, Gordon Bunshaft, Ralph Adams Cram, Alexander J. Davis, Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, Richard Morris Hunt, Philip Johnson, B. Henry Latrobe, Minard Lefever, Robert Mills, Richard Neutra, John Russell Pope, James Renwick, Eero Saarinen, Robert Stern, William Strickland, Robert Venturi, Thomas U. Walter, Stanford White, James Wines and Frank Lloyd Wright.
For more than three decades, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has been a leader in scholarly efforts to document and interpret this history. In 1968, the museum published a critically acclaimed guidebook, “Architecture in Virginia” by William B. O’Neal (now out of print), and organized and circulated the exhibition “Architectural Drawing in Virginia 1819-1969,” also assembled by O’Neal. In 1992, the museum presented a landmark exhibition titled “The Making of Virginia Architecture: Drawings and Models, 1719-1990.” The comprehensive companion book to that exhibition is still the standard general text on architecture in Virginia.
Inevitably, many hundreds of outstanding Virginia buildings have been lost to fire (many in the great fire of 1865, when much of Richmond was burned as the Confederate Army retreated), the ravages of the economy, and changing tastes over the course of the last 400 years. Among the more colorful losses was Cameron Castle (1815) in Petersburg, the baronial fantasy of a tobacco magnate, complete with entrance tower, arcades, a moat and turrets.
Richmond lost more than 1,500 of its pre-1850 buildings between the end of World War II and 1968. The historic buildings described below are among those notable examples that survived. Many are from the 19th century, when ironworking, a very early industry in Virginia, flowered.
Thomas Jefferson and Charles-Louis Clérisseau — The State Capitol, 1785
Thomas Jefferson designed this landmark of Neoclassicism in collaboration with the Frenchman Charles-Louis Clérisseau, an expert on ancient buildings. Jefferson’s inspiration was the first century temple La Maison Carrée, which he had visited in Nîmes, France, during the previous decade.
The Capitol, built without steps leading up to its portico (they were added later), has been much changed over the years. But the rotunda stands as Jefferson envisioned it: in its center is a statue of George Washington that Jefferson, with authorization from the Virginia General Assembly, commissioned from Jean-Antoine Houdon. The artist sculpted the figure from life in 1785. Busts of the other seven Virginia-born presidents and another of the Marquis de Lafayette fill niches in the rotunda’s walls. (Lafayette served in the Continental Army under Washington during the Revolution.) Two wings were added in 1906 to house the oldest continuous representative assembly in the New World, the Senate and House of Delegates of the Virginia General Assembly. Extensive renovations completed in 2007 provided an underground entrance at the foot of Capitol Hill and a new visitor center, café and gift shop. The Capitol is tentatively listed to be designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Robert Mills — Monumental Church, 1812-14
Monumental Church stands where a massive fire destroyed a theater in 1811. More than 70 people lost their lives. In 1812, Robert Mills designed a church with a domed, octagonal body and a dramatic portico as a memorial for the site. Symbols of mourning are found in the inverted torches on the marbleized columns, the abstract sarcophagi on the column supporting the balcony, and in the lachrymal (tear) vials on the portico’s frieze.
John Notman — Hollywood Cemetery, 1847
The first private cemetery in Richmond was laid out in the Picturesque style, with elaborate iron fences, winding roads, lush foliage and monuments. Commanding a view of the James River, the cemetery is the final resting place of such notable Virginians as presidents James Monroe and John Tyler, Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart and Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Doubtless, its most remarkable monument is a 90-foot-tall dry-stone pyramid, a tour de force that took nearly a year to complete in 1869. Some 18,000 Confederate dead are buried nearby.
Elijah E. Myers — Old City Hall, 1887-1894
This magnificent Gothic Revival building was designed by Elijah E. Myers, the architect of the state capitols of Utah, Michigan, Colorado, Texas and Idaho. Its many-storied central hall is breathtaking, as impressive a public interior as any in the country. Although a paean to Victorian tastes, the building was remarkable in its day for its technologically advanced application of concrete, glass brick, electricity and cast iron in its interior arches, columns and stairways. The building is clad in Richmond granite.
Jackson Ward Historic District
This historic downtown district – bounded by Belvidere, 3rd, Jackson and Marshall streets – has been an important center of black culture and commercial activity since free blacks began to settle there before the Civil War, and the district gradually became a predominantly black community after the war’s end. Jackson Ward’s ornate, cast-iron porches are second only to those of New Orleans in importance, and its town houses, Queen Anne row houses and Classical and Romanesque Revival buildings have been home to African-American families as well as black-owned businesses, banks and fraternal orders.
Monument Avenue, 1890
In 1907, when an equestrian statue of General J.E.B. Stuart was erected to stand sentinel along a Richmond thoroughfare with those of General Robert E. Lee (1890) and President Jefferson Davis (1907), Richmond city fathers saw the opportunity for a grand boulevard in the Beaux-Arts style. Influenced in part by the City Beautiful movement, city planners paved, widened and renamed the street Monument Avenue. By 1915, the avenue had been extended some five miles. Monuments to General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury were added. The last of the avenue’s monuments was erected in 1996, paying tribute to tennis champion and philanthropist Arthur Ashe Jr., a Richmond-native.
A sought-after address in the early 1900s, Monument Avenue today boasts many grand homes in a variety of styles, including several designed by William Lawrence Bottomley and a 1917 Tudor Revival house designed by John Russell Pope.
Carrère and Hastings — The Jefferson Hotel (1893-95)
As the Gilded Age drew to a close, Richmond’s mayor, the tobacco mogul Lewis Ginter, commissioned the prestigious New York firm of Carrère and Hastings to build the finest hostelry in the South. The firm was told to spare no expense, and it didn’t, working with enthusiasm in its eclectic Edwardian idiom to create the Jefferson Hotel in the then-fashionable Mediterranean style. Because of its sloping site, the hotel was constructed on two levels, thus affording interlocking vistas that are a block deep. A statue of Thomas Jefferson was placed in the upper court, and small pools with live alligators were situated nearby. The best in fabrics, china and crystal were brought from Europe to furnish public rooms in a grand style that must have staggered Richmonders of the time.
Wilson, Harris and Richards — Main Street Station, 1901
In Shockoe Bottom, Main Street Station is an imposing brick structure, one of the finest examples in the country of the extreme Romanticism that flourished during a period of eclectic revivals. Designed by Wilson, Harris and Richards of Philadelphia, the châteaulike train station is French Renaissance in style, with numerous dormers and a steep, terra-cotta roof.
The downtown train station’s block-long, cast-iron train shed, now one of the last of its kind in the country, is preserved in its entirety. This industrial form was developed from new materials for new uses at the turn of the century. Interstate 95 curves around Main Street Station’s landmark tower.
Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson — Richmond College, 1912
Between 1910 and 1914, Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson – the most important Gothic revivalists in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries – built six buildings for Richmond College, now the University of Richmond. Cram believed the Gothic style to be the most ideal for an educational institution. A cross between Jacobean and Elizabethan, the architecture is loosely based on British examples such as those at Cambridge and Oxford universities, Winchester Cathedral and Eton College. Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson continued to design buildings for the university through the 1920s.
John Russell Pope — Broad Street Station, 1913
The grand scale of Broad Street Station links it to the Golden Age of railroad travel. Pope employed a classical scheme with a Tuscan colonnade and the first dome to be incorporated into the design of a major railroad building. Now the building, complete with its 100-foot rotunda, houses the Science Museum of Virginia.
John Kevan Peebles — Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 1932
The original Virginia Museum of Fine Arts building reflected Peebles’ belief that architecture should preserve tradition. Built in the Georgian Revival style, it featured a centrally focused entrance, cross-axial halls and generous skylights. In 1985 the West Wing, designed by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, was added. Although the style of the addition is strikingly different from the original building, with massive stone walls that convey a sense of security, the two sections are connected through the use of a continuous cornice.
On the grounds of the museum are three historic buildings: Robinson House, the Confederate Memorial Chapel and the former Home for Needy Confederate Women. The latter, designed by Merrill C. Lee and completed in 1934, was deeded by the state to the museum in 1989. In 1999, the renovated home was reopened to serve as the museum’s Pauley Center, while the formal rooms were carefully restored to serve as reception rooms. The Gothic-style Confederate Memorial Chapel, designed by Marion J. Dimmock, was erected in 1887 to serve the Confederate Soldiers Home, which then occupied the grounds where the museum stands today. The setting adjacent to the chapel will be enhanced through re-landscaping of the museum’s campus as part of the current expansion project. The oldest structure on the site, Robinson House, was erected around 1850. It was the Robinson family farmhouse, situated on a 35-acre tract then outside the Richmond city limits.
Schmidt, Gordon and Erickson — Model Tobacco Building, 1938–40
The Chicago firm of Schmidt, Gordon and Erickson designed the Model Tobacco Building both to be admirable and to express its function. The horizontal strings of windows that run along the sides of the building were inspired by the International style of architecture and contrast with the verticality of the Art Deco doorway and sign that dominate the front entrance. The Model Tobacco Building uses modern materials such as glass and steel and demonstrates how different elements of a building can meld (for example, the sign and the gateposts that recall the form of the building itself).
Gordon Bunshaft for Skidmore, Owings and Merrill — Reynolds Metals Building, 1958
Built in the International style, the Reynolds Metals Building incorporates classical symmetry and elements such as a courtyard, a podium and a peristyle, while maintaining a thoroughly modern style in its use of glass, a flat roof and the modular system. The structure of the building relates to the surrounding landscape, emphasizing sunlight, greenery and open air. The building is now corporate headquarters for Altria Group. (Bunshaft also designed the 1968 Philip Morris manufacturing center.)
Richard Neutra — Rice House, 1964
Designed by Richard Neutra, this private house is an exposition of his theme of bringing nature indoors through the use of floor-to-ceiling windows, sliding glass doors, a mirrored stair wall that reflects the outdoors, and an alliance with natural forms, such as the site’s granite boulders. The house is on Lock Island in the James River, a location chosen for its spectacular views.
Ulrich Franzen and Associates — Philip Morris Operations Center, 1964
In accordance with 20th-century contributions to architectural design, the Philip Morris Operations Center is a testament to the new importance placed on the design of industrial buildings. It was meant to incorporate the different divisions of a business by facilitating the flow of traffic between sectors.
Philip Johnson — WRVA Building 1969
The WRVA radio studio on Church Hill has a commanding view of the city. Designed by Philip Johnson in the International style with steel and concrete panels and a tall, wall-encased radio tower, the one-story structure contrasts sharply in scale and materials to the late 19th-century brick row houses in this historic district. A private foundation has recently purchased the building with plans for a nonprofit agency to provide mental–health services for children.
The information in this document was drawn from “Architecture in Virginia” (1968), Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; “The Making of Virginia Architecture: Drawings and Models (1719-1990),” Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; and “A Guide to Historic Richmond” (2001), Historic Richmond Foundation.