Landmark Decision 

Can Richmond's spot in history be picked up and moved?

That got people's attention.

He then would go on to say that Richmond was highly typical of old cities on the East Coast, places that had experienced similar triumphs and tragedies that have marked U.S. history through the centuries.

This was a good thing, Jewell believed. Richmond, because of its rich, intact and architecturally significant historical fabric (and mid-Atlantic positioning at the crossroads of I-95 and I-64) could serve as a peerless urban laboratory for telling our nation's story in its entirety.

But Jewell also understood that Richmond is unique for having been the capital of the Confederacy from 1862 until the city's burning three years later. Two surviving and architecturally brilliant buildings are must-see destinations for those in search of Civil War history — the State Capitol (which also served as the Confederate Capitol) and the White House of the Confederacy.

The statehouse has served the General Assembly since 1788. Suffragettes rallied here. Winston Churchill spoke and former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder was inaugurated here. This Thanksgiving, as always, Native Americans will deposit a tribute of game at the governor's doorstep.

The White House of the Confederacy, built in 1819 at 1201 E. Clay St. and attributed to Robert Mills, the first professional American-born architect, tells a poignant and distinctively human story. After a spectacular renovation some years ago, its walls echo with the tale of a family under siege.

President Jefferson Davis and his wife, Varina, came to Richmond from the deep south and were not embraced by Richmond society. They reared six children here, losing one when he fell off the garden porch and hit his head. Lee and Jackson conferred here. By war's end, Varina was down to serving water at official functions — patriotically called "Confederate punch." Finally, the Davises, like many white Richmonders, fled the city, leaving the place in flames.

Just days later, Abraham Lincoln arrived unexpectedly with his son, Tad. Together, they walked up 12th Street from the still-smoldering riverfront. He wanted to see the place where Davis had presided over the rebels. Leaving the White House, throngs of ecstatic black Richmonders accompanied the Lincolns back to their boat.

Lincoln knew that places and spaces resonate with meaning.

We visit Athens to feel the spirit of where the classical world was nurtured, and Florence to see where it was rediscovered. Ellis Island and Auschwitz move us for profoundly different reasons.

As troubling as our past can be, the Confederacy is Richmond's claim to being in the history books. This is where people come — like the fields of Gettysburg — to revisit the tragic years that eventually brought healing to our nation.

When visiting the White House of the Confederacy, and taking one of the informed, impartial and remarkably evocative tours offered there, one feels as if the Davises might walk through the door at any time.

They won't, of course, but one can imagine — Clay and 12th streets are outside the windows, and light shines through the windows at the same angles the Davises knew. Down the hill to the east (the view now obscured by the Virginia Commonwealth University parking deck), the great house and nearby mansions lorded over the valley below. The rich kids of Court End at the top of the hill battled the working-class gangs from the Bottom and neighborhoods beyond.

Some people have argued that the Museum of the Confederacy is too isolated, that the medical center has all but choked the life and spirit out of the 1200 block of East Clay Street. And it is no secret that VCU is salivating to get the property for expansion. "We've saving lives, not bricks," has been VCU's response to some other recent preservation issues. But that company line doesn't hold in this situation.

And the Museum of the Confederacy leadership itself seems to be terribly off-track in thinking that this internationally significant landmark can be carted off to another location and given historic theme-park treatment.

For better or worse, the neo-classical White House of the Confederacy, with its stoic, white-stucco street front and its colossal Doric columns overlooking the rear garden, is the essence of Richmond. To suggest that the historic complex has lost its meaning amid an increasingly dense environment is wrong.

Court End is an urban neighborhood that has evolved over two centuries. The White House — like the nearby Valentine Richmond History Center and John Marshall House — is a humanistic and aesthetic reminder that a city's past structures are an essential part of the urban fabric, not a luxury. As the neighborhood gets more crowded and takes on the increasingly characterless aspects of a contemporary medical park, the presence of the White House here becomes only more important.

Can the Museum and White House of the Confederacy survive here as a viable cultural destination? To answer that question, we'll need to take a broader look at how Richmond treats all of its historical treasures, especially in Court End, where history, VCU's current needs and future growth for all institutions collide. This is a major issue that will require not just coexistence, but creativity and cooperation.

But in the future, our great-grandchildren, like Lincoln, should be able to visit the very place where Jefferson Davis anguished over his ill-fated nation. S


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