A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood — Part 2: Who’s Next Door?

 Darden Garden Clock

The “Capitol Square Complex” is a collection of 25 or so buildings arrayed around the hill on which Thomas Jefferson’s Capitol Building sits.  The jewel in the crown is the Capitol itself. (The Capitol is undergoing a top-to-bottom renovation and structural overhaul which is scheduled for completion by the beginning of next year.  I’ll have a post about that project in a couple of weeks.)

Two of the complex’s more architecturally interesting structures are the buildings adjacent to the General Assembly Building along Broad Street: the Patrick Henry Building and Old City Hall.

Patrick Henry Building

The Patrick Henry Building, formerly the Old State Library, is the House and Senate’s temporary home during the Capitol’s renovation. It was built in 1939 as a Public Works Administration project. Its style is one popular with PWA buildings and familiar to anybody who has seen a local post office (like this one in my home town of Oak Park, Illinois) US Post Office Oak Park IL.JPG or other Federal building that was constructed in the decade after the Great Depression. It’s called “Stripped Classicism.”  My legislative aide/architectural researcher, Jean Barton, describes the building’s style as ”characterized by the proportions of Classical architecture but devoid of the ornamentation.” Faced with square blocks of limestone, the exterior reads as a two-story structure with recessed colonnades surrounding the second level, but the facades mask multiple levels. In 1970, an additional story was constructed, giving the building a distinctive stepped-pyramid outline. The building was abandoned in 1996 when the new State Library, across from the GAB, opened; but its prime location on Capitol Square, next to the Governor’s Manson, led to major renovations and the building’s reopening last year to house the Governor’s working offices, Cabinet Secretaries and executive agency offices.

House Chamber.JPGDuring the 2006 Session That Wouldn’t End, the Delegates met in the Reading Room at the east end of the first floor; the Senate met in the slightly smaller Archives at the west end. Both have been restored to their original glory with art deco chandeliers and other details. The Legislative Branch is paying rent to the Executive Branch for their use – a turnabout from the traditional arrangement, where the legislators controlled the Capitol Building and the Governor occupied the Third Floor as a kind of Very Special Guest.

We’re not done with our temporary quarters yet.  This past week it was disclosed that there was a $130 million bookkeeping error in the apportionment of sales tax proceeds for public schools between the state and local governments.  While we may be able to hold off on cleaning up this mess until next year, a memo from Appropriations Committee Chairman Vince Callahan to committee members this week contained the ominous comment that “it appears that we may need to address this situation in August.”   And then there’s that pesky issue of transportation that we keep meaning to do something about.  That has “September Special Session” written all over it.

The longer we stay in our temporary chambers in the Patrick Henry Building, the greater the risk that we’ll complicate our transition back to our new digs in the renovated Capitol.  One major reason: When we moved over for the 2006 Session, we brought with us the electronic voting systems whereby 100 Delegates and 40 Senators vote at their desks – Yea, Nay, or Abstain – and the results are displayed instantly, by individual member, on two huge displays in each chamber.  (These systems are vital both for accountability and efficiency: they provide the only real-time means of knowing how a member voted, and the only alternative is an oral “viva voce” roll call of each member.  In the 2006 session we had nearly 2000 roll call votes on the House floor.  Do the math.)

At some point, the staff has to clip the wires in Patrick Henry, tote the tote boards over to the new chambers, and begin the arduous task of rewiring so that we’re ready to roll when the 2007 Session opens next January 10.  I don’t know how long that will take, but I think it’s safe to say that it’s not a Saturday afternoon DIY project.

Old City Hall

Well, back to our neighborhood tour.  Between the General Assembly Building and the Patrick Henry Building sits Old City Hall, built in a style that’s totally out of character with the classical Capitol across the way, the PWA/Classical Patrick Henry Building to the east, or (blessedly) the hodgepodge of structures that were fused together to form the General Assembly Building on its west side.  Architecture Critic/Legislative Aide Jean Barton elaborates:

“Built between 1886 and 1894 in the Grand Victorian Gothic style that Richmond City Fathers thought would signal the city’s rise from the devastation of the Civil War, the exterior of the building suggests medieval European castles with a heavily textured granite façade, complete with a clock tower, turrets, pinnacles and finials.

“The interior is equally lush, with a ‘courtyard’ enclosed by a copper-clad skylight. Three tiers of Gothic arcades and great flights of double stairs are also made of cast iron, a testament to Richmond’s iron industry at that time. Through the years, however, the building fell into disrepair and the Commonwealth purchased the building from the city in 1981.  The General Assembly then voted to tear down the building and put up a parking lot.  Cooler heads prevailed:  The Historic Richmond Foundation gained the leasing rights and arranged to oversee the restoration and rental of the building, allowing a private developer to carefully restore the building for commercial offices.  Many organizations rent office space there, including local governments for their legislative liaisons and media such as the Washington Post.

City Hall Lobby.JPG“The restoration included installing a glass brick floor, lit from underneath, in the courtyard and painting the arches and columns in the courtyard in richly polychromed colors.  The Commonwealth has subsequently repurchased the property; the building’s exact future usage isn’t known, but it won’t include a parking lot.  Most likely, given its convenient location, it will house some small state agencies.”

So that’s it for this week’s walking tour.  Here’s how it fits into the grand design for 7-West, as I see it:  In the coming weeks (with occasional side trips to places like the Tour de France), Kris and I hope to shed some light on the workings of the General Assembly: what we do, why we do it, and so on.  Today’s post is a little of the “where.”

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