May 16, 2007 News & Features » Cover Story


A Timeless Achievement 

Inside the $104.5 million renovation of the state Capitol.

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It's the winter of 2004. Backhoes burrow deep, excavating Capitol Hill for an underground addition to the statehouse. While truck after truck works to haul off an eventual 27,000 tons of topsoil and clay, I ask a Virginia Department of General Services officer about the fate of that earth.

"The historic dirt is going to a secure location," he replies with that knowing look and grave expression so often associated with post-9/11 officialdom. "It will be returned."

He was true to his word. Earlier this spring, 10,000 tons of that "historic dirt" were back in place — soil that had witnessed patriots, Confederates, African slaves, Yankees and the likes of Jefferson, Burr, Monroe, Dickens, Eisenhower, Gerald Ford and both Clintons. Like a divot dutifully replaced on a golf course, the curvaceous profile of Capitol Hill had been re-formed seamlessly.

But things have changed since the soil was removed and returned. For starters, the historic dirt has become, well, more storied. It found another governor and his family in residence.  And on May 3, Queen Elizabeth II strode onto the Capitol portico, cast her gaze across the reconstituted hillside and lifted her begloved hand to thrill thousands assembled there. She then went inside, toured the impeccably restored Statehouse and addressed the General Assembly.

But the radical change, and what the queen didn't see, is the 27,000-square-foot underground extension to the Capitol and the new public front door on Bank Street. If she had, she'd have walked along a handsome interior "street" with as many twists, turns, steps and ramps as an Italian hill town. There are a total of 101 carefully considered steps, beginning just inside the intriguing new space and leading to the main floor of the Capitol with its legislative chambers and the masterful Houdon statue of George Washington in the Rotunda.

The queen might have preferred riding one of two clear-glass elevators that are startlingly high-tech in appearance. Or, as former First Lady Jinks Holton (and Gov. Tim Kaine's mother-in-law) opted to do at the opening reception April 30, ascend the ramps that occupy the space. (She was temporarily wheelchair-bound following a skiing mishap.)

There are thoughtful observers and aesthetes who considered a subterranean approach to the Capitol unfathomable when it was first proposed: How un-Jeffersonian to have the citizenry slink through a tunnel to reach their seat of government, they cried.

Such critics might have a point if this were an ideal universe. But it isn't. And the Capitol is a more complex and highly trafficked space than when it was first occupied 219 years ago in 1788. It's long been one of Richmond's most admired, famous and popular attractions, drawing far more people than could have been envisioned.

Today, tour and student groups arrive in packs — busloads of 40 to 50 per vehicle. These visitors not only seek to brush up on history, they also want to eat lunch, buy a T-shirt, use the facilities, change a baby's diaper or linger over an artifact or a luminary's portrait.

So with this expansion, Virginia joins a number of other state capitols, such as the one in Pennsylvania, that are mega-spaces — like shopping malls, airports and large museums — where people expect a certain level of amenities. The new extension contains a gift shop, conference rooms, Meriwether's Café, exhibition spaces and expanded restroom facilities.

And, of course, in the early 21st century,  security is a driving factor in the design of all new governmental buildings. At the Capitol, one of the design challenges was how to screen the flow of visitors efficiently, effectively and gracefully.

As for the symbolism of an underground entrance, truth to tell, a generation of visitors had made their way into the Capitol through what for all practical purposes was a tunnel anyway. The public entered a western side door near the equestrian Washington Monument and, after passing security screening, made their way along a low-lighted passage with sour air until they found a staircase that led them upstairs. It was a less than satisfactory experience.

Also, in many places, the long-held American architectural tradition of building ever upward and outward is not always possible or desirable. The inventive possibilities of underground expansions are evident in a new addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Mo.; additional theater spaces at Carnegie Hall and an expansion of Morgan Library in New York City; and in the restoration of the undercroft at Boston's Trinity Church.

The new entrance and extension to Virginia's Capitol is highly respectful of its historic setting, is handsome architecturally and delivers from a programmatic standpoint. It was designed by Hillier Architecture, a firm with offices in New York, Philadelphia, Princeton, N.J., Washington, D.C., Shanghai and Dubai. Partner-in-charge of the overall Capitol project was George C. Skarmeas; Sonja Bijelic, a Hillier associate principal, designed the extension.

I arrive at the Capitol on a brilliant, sunny Sunday afternoon and stand in the new, modest-sized semicircular plaza that has been scalloped out of Capitol Hill on Bank Street near Tenth.

A dozen other people await the 1 o'clock opening. A Capitol hostess — oops, they are called guides now — is among those milling about outside. She explains that the door lock is on an automatic timer, a signal we are dealing with state-of-the-art goings-on. She continues cheerfully to share other facts to no one in particular — how the blocks making up the retaining wall are fossil-encrusted Texas limestone, for example.

The stone looks unnecessarily bright and contemporary to my eye, especially because the architect makes a clearly historical statement at the temple-front entrance. The entryway is based on a Virginia architectural icon, the "Temple of Temperance" in Fluvanna County. Noted architect Alexander Jackson Davis designed this 1820 springhouse and "folly" and set it into a hillside at Bremo, a country estate. Davis' inspiration had been the Temple of Thrasybulus, an ancient Greek structure on the Acropolis that was known to Virginians in the 19th century through a pattern book, "The Antiquities of Athens."

I later find out that both the rustic retaining wall and classical temple front are built of stone from the same Texas quarry; only the finishes are different. Things should even out here eventually. There are slots between the stones in the retaining wall where vines and climbing plants have already been planted. This vegetation should cover the stone to create a picturesque effect.

At the base of the retaining wall and flanking the entrance are two continuous built-in stone benches. These are a welcome and considerate touch.

Verdict: While an architecturally contemporary treatment at the entrance would have been valid here, re-creating the Temple of Temperance is a highly sophisticated and clever reference to the state's architectural traditions. It also fits magnificently into the big picture of maintaining and developing this southern side of Capitol (including the new entrance) as a picturesque or naturalistic landscape, and not following a plan with strict French or Beaux Arts formality or symmetry.

My group files through the temple front and into the reception area. The lobby area is circular, not large, but welcoming in spirit. The built-in information counter is set opposite the front door and is crafted from the same stone as that used on the building's exterior. Carved into the curved stone walls above the desk is a 1789 quote from Thomas Jefferson: "Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government."

Double doorways on each side of the desk lead into the core of the building. One of these doorways on each side is dedicated to security clearance. That leaves one door unencumbered, a refreshing signal that electronic screening doesn't totally rule the day.

The ceiling in this space is dropped slightly and hangs free of the surrounding walls. The recessed space is flooded with artificial light to create a sense of implied, extended space.

Verdict: The dignified space is surprisingly relaxed. Visitors get a clear signal that excellent materials are being used, and although it is an underground space, it is well-lighted and has a sense of openness.

After You round the corner, the extension's full architectural scheme explodes into view. The interior "street" beckons. But it's clear that one must negotiate a gauntlet of either steps or ramps. A few yards ahead, the eye is drawn to a space that's flooded with natural light.

But first visitors will pass a gift shop on the left and restrooms on the right.

The walls throughout the progressive space are a soft beige shade of Jerusalem gold limestone that was quarried in Israel.

The first place where the street widens is immediately beyond the gift shop. Here a large space awaits the installation of a permanent history exhibition. Temporarily, a number of large display panels provide an architectural history of the Capitol.

The ceilings in this area and throughout the extension are about 16 feet high.

Moving up a few more steps or taking one of two perpendicular ramps, the street moves between two large legislative committee rooms that have movable doors and appear to be flexible for other activities. The walls here are lined with anigre, a type of hardwood. These twin multipurpose rooms that flank the street are equipped with projection systems and furnished with contemporary institutional tables and chairs.

After passing by the committee rooms, the visitor is confronted with the first of two hydraulic elevators with clear glass cabs that are beautiful objects in a gleaming, startling way. A strong design statement is being made here: The experience of traveling a few feet by lift is on parity with walking up the ramps or steps.

Finally, visitors arrive at a broad, monumental stairway that leads up to a pivotal space in the overall progression of the street, the atrium. This is a circular space and a visual magnet of the progression along the street up to this point. An oculus has been placed in the roof of the atrium, flooding the space with natural light from above.

On the left at the top of the monumental staircase is Meriwether's Café. This eatery replaces the beloved Chicken's lunchroom, which was located for many years on the ground level of the Capitol.

Following the curved right-hand wall of the atrium is a grand staircase that leads to a space directly under the front steps of the Capitol. This is a good point at which to turn around and see the distance you've traveled and enjoy the axial view from this high vantage point.

Verdict: This circular space is a brilliant way to twist the axis from the street to address the Capitol itself.

The walls of the larger spaces along the street, such as the exhibition area and the atrium, are made of larger blocks of stone, while the walls of the narrower street are made of random, smaller-sized stone. While the same stone is used throughout, this is one of the details that gives the interior variety and texture without succumbing to fussiness.

The atrium, in the spot directly below the oculus, cries out for a major three-dimensional object, a sculpture or statue. Since this spot is key to the actual and visual design of the overall extension, something needs to take place here.

The visual and spatial experience changes dramatically when you reach the level immediately above and beyond the atrium. This is the busiest area architecturally, although it remains ordered. Another large glass hydraulic elevator has been placed here. Just behind the sculptural form of the elevator is a ramp that cuts across the front of the Capitol.

But the architectural drama here rests neither with the elevator nor with the ramp. Here the visitor faces the blank white stucco wall of the Capitol's lower level, a facade that faced southward from 1788 until 1906, when the exterior front steps were added to the front portico. The other quite different experience is to turn around and look back down on the atrium, the grand staircase and snippets of the street that can be seen from this vantage point. This is a Piranesi or Escher print come to three-dimensional life. Witnessing the complexity of the interior street and its turn to align with the Capitol is thrilling.

From this point one can move from the extension and through the walls to enter Jefferson's Capitol. There are two routes visitors may take along groin-vaulted corridors that run along the eastern and western walls of the building. Windows line the passage, and newly exposed views of the surrounding grounds are delightful. Best of all, these two passages are on axis and therefore lead directly to stairwells to take visitors up to the Capitol's main floor above.

Verdict: In the atrium and in the way the new and old structures link, the brilliance of what Hillier has achieved architecturally comes through. This design project was challenging, and the architect served many bosses and had to keep many considerations in mind, including legislators (for this is, above all, a working building), visitors, the restraints of being underground, the fragility of a historic building and contemporary requirements. Apparently architects joked that designing the extension was more like designing an automobile than a building.

But Hillier also achieves a sense of timelessness with this addition. And this is important to the spirit of Jefferson's original achievement. In the 1780s, the Virginia Legislature asked Jefferson to interview possible architects for the new Capitol while in Paris. He was reluctant, fearing that anything they proposed would become dated in a generation or so. Instead, he chose the Maison Carrée, an ancient Roman temple in the south of France, to be his model. It has survived for hundreds of years; Virginia's Capitol should aspire to be similarly ageless.  Jefferson's temple worked and continues to serve handsomely.

In many ways Hillier's extension is very different from the original structure, but like Jefferson, Hillier employed a bold idea, used good proportions, was sparing on decoration and used the best materials and technology available.

The commonwealth of Virginia has again proved to be a good client. In so doing it also becomes a patron of architecture with this intriguing 21st-century masterwork.

One question remains: Where are the 17,000 tons of historic dirt that were not returned to Capitol Square? S

Senior Contributing Editor Edwin Slipek Jr. has been Style Weekly's architecture critic for 15 years. He teaches architectural history at Virginia Commonwealth University and at the Maggie L. Walker Governor's School, and is an honorary member of the Virginia Society of the American Institute of Architects.

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