Sure, it doesn’t have a retinue of colorful servants who serve a rich upper-class trying to adjust to the changing times and society as the world shifts around them. However, in a city named after the English homeland, in a state named after the Virgin Queen Elizabeth I, on the banks of King James’ River one should not be surprised to find our own Downton Abbey located in Downtown. Richmond has its own turn-of-the-century Victorian Gothic castle.
I talked last week about the monstrosity that is the current iteration of City Hall. Let’s rewind a bit and take a look at what came before. As with a lot of stories coming out of Richmond right now during this General Assembly session, our tale begins at the Capitol Building.
It’s April 1870. The Civil War has only recently ended; Richmond has only been out from under military rule for a few months. We’re just starting in on Reconstruction. Unlike modern times, there is a heated fight for the position of Mayor of the former capital of the CSA. The argument is taken to the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, which was then housed on the second floor of Richmond’s Capital Building. A substantial crowd gathers to hear the argument. The weight of the crowd proves too much for the balcony and the entire thing comes crashing down onto the floor of the court, which then in turn goes crashing down to the floor of the House of Delegates located on the first floor. The injured crawled, limped, or were carried to the Capitol lawn. In total, 62 people were killed and 251 were wounded.
So, what does this have to do with City Hall? After the collapse of 1870 Richmond there was a movement to tear down the Capitol. The City couldn’t bring itself to tear down the Roman inspired building that Jefferson himself had designed to sit atop Shockoe Hill. The City Hall building, on the other hand…
The original Richmond City Hall, or First City Hall as we will call it, was built in 1816. It was based off of classical Greek architecture complete with columns and symmetrical dome. It was designed by Robert Mills, the same guy who designed the Washington Monument. Unfortunately, Mr. Mills had never been President and so his building did not have the same sense of veneration. In the hysteria regarding old building it was decided that it should be torn down.
Side note: Actually, the building had been slated for demolition in the early 1850s. City leaders had deemed it to be about to fall over due to lack of upkeep. Ironically, the actual demolition in 1874 found the building to be quite solid and difficult to tear down… but they went ahead and did it anyway. Richmond City politics and wise decision making go WAY back.
It took City Hall a few (9) years, but they eventually decided on a new design for a building. Actually, they had rejected the design first submitted by Elijah E. Myers, who won the design competition in 1884, after they couldn’t anyone to build it within the $300,000 budget. (That’s almost 7.4 million in today’s money!) Another competition was held and a Boston company won, so in August of 1886 the city began work on Elijah E. Myers’ plan… wait, what? If you’re looking for a good explanation, you are not going to find it here.
If I had to guess, I would say that it had something to do with our favorite City of Richmond Engineer, Colonel Wilfred E. Cutshaw. It should not strike you as odd that the designer of the New Pump House just a couple years earlier was heavily involved in the construction of Old City Hall (which was new at the time…), since they both share similar design elements and look like a good place for Batman to hang out. The project was completed in 1894, a mere 8 years later, with a final cost of $1,318,349.19 (that’s $33.7 million in today’s dollars!) or about 400% over budget. Some of this was due to Col. Cutshaw hiring day laborers, but another significant cost has been designated as graft: Practices, esp. bribery, used to secure illicit gains in politics or business; corruption. Again, Richmond politics run deep.
Granite was mined from near the James River in Petersburg and brought by railroad up Broad Street to the location. The design features four asymmetrical towers. My personal favorite is the clock tower (the clocks were installed in 1890 and originally featured wooden hands), which unfortunately was not struck by a bolt of lightning on November 12, 1955 at exactly 10:04 PM.
Again, an aside: The main tower stands at 195 feet above the pavement. This fact played into the curious case of one Colonel James Monroe Winstead. (Turn of the century Richmond was just teeming with Colonels.) Col. Winstead was a 70 year old bank president in Greensborough, NC. He came to Richmond, checked into a hotel, had breakfast and the next day went to Old City Hall, climbed to an observation deck 94 feet up the clock tower, discarded shoes and cane and jumped to his death. He was impaled upon the iron fence below and removed “with much difficulty”. It was also reported that every bone in his body was broken save for his skull. There has been speculation about whether this was actually suicide, something more sinister, or (as his family maintained) he was just trying to catch his hat which had been blown off. (The Shockoe Examiner had a good article on this in 2010.)
Old City Hall served as City Hall from 1894 – 1970 when it was replaced with the current ugly building. There were at least two big pushes to completely demolish Old City Hall (as it was no known), with a lot of people deriding it for being an eyesore. Keep in mind that this was coming from people who invented such things as large rectangle buildings and shag carpeting. It was saved from the wrecking ball by a group of concerned citizens and is being repurposed into private offices. The first floor is open to the public during regular business hours.
Much of what was there when it was built has been preserved. The inside is a testament to the many new skills that Richmond had to learn on the fly. Working with granite, cast iron, and glass the inside is a beautiful representation of Richmond in the Guilded Age.
The history of the three City Halls is a great representation of the struggles that Richmond has with its past. We create these ornate pieces of architectural history and the moment the style falls out of favor it seems like we clamor to tear it down to put up whatever is next in style. Personally, I find Old City Hall to be much statelier and awe inspiring than the current iteration, and am doubly saddened that First City Hall is no more. I am thoroughly relieved that Old City Hall is still standing, but I am aghast that anyone in their right mind would want to tear it down. Sometimes, Richmond… you confuse me.