Virginia State Capitol

Richmond
VA

The State Capitol designed by Thomas Jefferson

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QUICK FACTS
  • Thomas Jefferson drafts a bill which will move Virginia’s capitol to Richmond, from its current seat of government at Williamsburg. It fails to pass the House of Delegates (Oct-1776).
  • Despite the defeat, but anticipating a future need, Jefferson sketches designs for a new state capitol building.
  • After a new bill successfully passes both houses of the Virginia Assembly (1779), Richmond officially becomes the state capitol on 30 April 1780 — during Jefferson’s term as Governor (1779 - 81).
  • While serving as U.S. Minister to France (1785 - 89), Jefferson is asked in 1785 to submit a design for the capitol building by the Directors of Public Buildings, of which he himself was once a director.
  • Jefferson determines to use classical architecture as the model for the capitol building.
  • As an amateur architect, he is deeply influenced by 16th-century Venetian architect Andrea Palladio, whose famous Four Books of ArchitectureI quattro libri dell’architettura — is steeped in the architecture of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
  • During his lifetime Jefferson acquires seven editions of I quattro libri.
  • While working with French architectural draughstman Charles-Louis Clérisseau (1721 - 1820) to create final drawings, Jefferson agrees to model the exterior after the Maison Carrée, an almost perfectly preserved first century Roman temple in Nîmes, France.
  • Palladio had included drawings of the Maison Carrée in Book Four of I quattro libri. But it is the advocacy of Clérisseau — who has detailed drawings of the Roman temple (published 1788, in the first volume of his intended series, Antiquités de la France) — that wins Jefferson over.
  • Jefferson writes to the Directors of Public Buildings at Richmond (26-Jan-1786) that the Maison Carrée has pleased universally for near 2,000 years.
  • To ensure that the exterior of the proposed capitol would be built as designed, Jefferson commissions a scale plaster model from eminent modelmaker Jean-Pierre Fouquet (1752 - 1829).
  • The drawings arrive in Richmond in January 1786; Fouquet’s model arrives toward the end of the year.
  • However, the cornerstone of the new capitol had already been laid (18-Aug-1785).
  • Jefferson’s design is altered to fit an already-begun foundation; it is also modified for expedient or practical reasons.
  • With building in progress in Richmond, Jefferson — traveling in southern France — goes to Nîmes to see the Roman temple for himself. He admits to gazing at the Maison quarée, like a lover at his mistress (27-Mar-1787).
  • The Virginia Assembly occupies the new capitol building in 1788; in 1789 the executive and judicial branches move in.
  • Today, in the Jefferson Room at the Virginia State Capitol, one can still see the original plaster model crafted by Fouquet.
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When Virginia’s capitol moved from Williamsburg to Richmond in 1780, Thomas Jefferson found an opportunity to design a capitol building that reached back to classical ideals but that also made a statement about the New World. He chose the Maison Carrée, a first century Roman temple in Nîmes, France, as the exterior model. And like Monticello, his own home building project perched atop a mountain, the Virginia capitol was placed on Shockoe Hill to overlook the James River and to dominate the Richmond skyline.

Though his design was adapted to fit the realities of construction that, in Fall 1785, had already begun, or the practicalities of functional use (entry was through the basement, rather than the elegant portico steps that were finally build in 1906) — overall, it was what Jefferson wanted built. It was a secular temple to liberty. It was the first public building in the New World to be constructed in the form of a classical Roman temple and its factual presence would shape the architecture of the future District of Columbia.

From 2004 to 2007 the Capitol was extensively renovated to provide more space for the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, but with sensitivity to preserving Jefferson’s original vision. Entry is now through the 27,000-foot square underground extension.

Guided tours take visitors through historic areas of the building, including the old chambers of the Senate and House of Delegates, the Jefferson Room, and the Rotunda, with its definitive statue of George Washington, modeled from life, by Jean-Antoine Houdon.

The issue of taxation had immense symbolic importance on both sides of the Atlantic. Like most of his fellow members of Parliament, [Lord Frederick] North regarded the right of Britain to tax America as integral to the absolute and indivisible supremacy of Parliament over America. The concept of parliamentary sovereignty was more than an abstract doctrine. It had emotional resonance as a constitutional victory won against the monarchy in the Glorious Revolution, following the deposition of James II in 1688. It was regarded as essential for the protection of liberty in general. For Britain, the right to tax the colonies was fundamental to its authority to govern America. At the same time, taxation united colonial opposition more than any other grievance.

Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy
The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire (2013)