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Summer Musings
By Stephen J. Rossie

Square2017 imageRICHMOND, VA – Sometimes, during a blistering wave of sweltering weather, it’s difficult to determine which is more uncomfortable in Capitol Square — the heat and humidity or the political posturing and rhetoric. Occasionally, there are both, but most summers are a quiet period as lawmakers are home and campaigns busy themselves with crucial, if unglamorous, organization building.

It’s all quiet in an evolving Capitol Square these days. Walking through the impeccable grounds in early July, it’s instinctive to reflect on the nation’s and commonwealth’s beginnings. Richmonders who work downtown and who are fully acclimated to the weather populate the park like square and read and eat their lunches.

Last week, construction workers — or should that be deconstruction workers? — completed the demolition of the General Assembly Building, meticulously unraveling the super structures of three of the four buildings that had been joined together to create the commonwealth’s legislative nerve center. A conventional wrecking ball approach wasn’t possible because the buildings were laden with hazardous materials.

The delicate demolition also was necessary to safeguard the shell of an elaborately ornate 1912 bank building, one of the four structures that comprised the old GAB. It is all that remains and offers a surreal landscape for those accustomed to viewing the awkward tower — a misfit among the hodgepodge of edifices from distinct historic eras.

One of the now gone buildings also had early 20th-century roots, though not as elegant. The new 15-story tower will be built to reflect the elegance of the saved building. But the real story, according to a Senate source, isn’t the outward design but its innards — the offices and workspace capabilities anticipate accommodating a full time legislature. If you think budget and other legislative battles are stressful now. . . .

Apparently, at least a few lawmakers think that Virginia’s growth and the complexity that accompanies it, demands year-round attention. The sentiment may be growing ever so slowly.

The new General Assembly Building, which is scheduled to open in four years, will be the signature of three decades of Capitol Square renovations costing billions of dollars (though there more projects on the drawing board). Projects have included, beginning in the 1990s, the restoration, remodeling and/or relocation of buildings including the Executive Mansion, capitol, Oliver Hill Building, Barbara Johns Building, Pocahontas Building, Supreme Court and Court of Appeals Building, the Library of Virginia and the Patrick Henry Building.

Except for the capitol, Executive Mansion and the new GAB, none of the buildings in and around Capitol Square are used for anything close for which they were originally built. For example, the courts are in the old Federal Reserve Building and the Barbara Johns Building, which houses the Office of the Attorney General, was the Hotel Richmond. From the 18th to early 20th centuries, almost the entirety of state (and some of the ill-fated Confederate government) was housed in Mr. Jefferson’s Capitol or the few buildings in the square itself.

While summer brings a temporary break in the political noise and heat, the construction sounds and temperatures more than compensate. Walking through Capitol Square and reflecting on its evolving architectural history is a good respite from both.


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