1 Virginia State Capitol

Richmond, Virginia
Thomas Jefferson, 1788

The Virginia State Capitol sits atop a hill in Richmond, Virginia. Photo Credit: Jonathan Nestor

Thomas Jefferson’s boldly neoclassical Virginia State Capitol declared America’s independence from British architecture. Photo Credit: Jonathan Nestor

The Maison Carrée, an ancient Roman temple in Nimes, France, inspired Thomas Jefferson’s design of the Virginia State Capitol. Photo Credit: Public Domain

Jefferson commissioned a 1:60 scale model to be sent back to Richmond. That original plaster model remains on display in the Virginia State Capitol today. Photo Credit: Jonathan Nestor

The Ionic capitals at the top of the building’s columns are much simpler than the Maison Carrée’s elaborate Corinthian capitals. Jefferson made this substitution to ensure that the local Virginia craftsmen could construct his design. Photo Credit: Jonathan Nestor

Jefferson intended the building as a “temple to sovereignty” that would inspire the American people. Its design inspired American architects to use the classical temple form as the official face of this brand new nation. Photo Credit: Jonathan Nestor

The grand front steps, part of Jefferson’s original design, were not added until 1904. Also added at that time were two wings (not in Jefferson’s design) that expanded the building to the east and west, providing chambers for the Virginia State Senate and House of Delegates. Photo Credit: Jonathan Nestor

Among Thomas Jefferson’s many roles: author of the Declaration of Independence, governor of Virginia, third president of the United States, founder of the University of Virginia, and an accomplished, albeit self-taught, architect and inventor. Photo Credit: Public Domain

A life-sized statue of George Washington stands in the building’s rotunda. French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon visited Washington’s home in Mount Vernon and created this likeness based on a mold he took of the first president’s face. Photo Credit: Jonathan Nestor

During the Civil War, the Virginia State Capitol housed both the Confederate Congress and the Virginia state legislature Photo Credit: Library of Congress

After the fall of the Confederacy in 1865, much of Richmond was left in ruins; the widespread fires stopped short of the Virginia State Capitol building. Photo Credit: Library of Congress

Jefferson’s home at Monticello served as an architectural laboratory for his evolving and expanding ideas on buildings. He designed, redesigned, built, and rebuilt his home here over four decades. Photo Credit: Jonathan Nestor

Virginia State Capitol

As a founding father of the United States, Thomas Jefferson was passionate about America’s independence from Britain. He was no fan of the king of England and, by extension, no fan of the Georgian architecture that bore the kings’ name.

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So when the state of Virginia needed a new government building, Jefferson – a self-taught architect and former governor of that state – took his inspiration from a source very far removed, geographically and historically, from the British colonial architecture of the day.

Serving as America’s minister to France at the time, Jefferson visited the Maison Carrée, a classical Roman temple in southern France dating back to 16 B.C. He was thoroughly entranced by this monumental ancient structure, describing it as “the best morsel of antient [sic] architecture now remaining.”

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During the Civil War, Richmond served as the capital of the Southern Confederacy, and the Virginia State Capitol building housed both the State assembly and the Confederate government. Watch the story.

Jefferson hired the French architect Charles-Louis Clerisseau to draft a design for a similar building in Richmond, Virginia. He even commissioned and sent back to the U.S. a scale model that is displayed at the Virginia State Capitol to this day.

The Virginia State Capitol was Jefferson’s declaration of independence from British architecture. Its influence is seen in more than two centuries of neoclassical government and commercial buildings across America, from local banks and post offices to the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. 

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Civil War-Era Richmond
A time line of the Civil War, with photographs of Richmond, Virginia

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Richmond Canal Walk
To learn more about Richmond’s history, stroll along the Kanawha Canal adjacent to the James River and check out the markers denoting dramatic events from more than four centuries of Richmond history. The canal itself is historic; in 1784, George Washington lobbied the Virginia General Assembly to build it in order to open up transportation and trade routes to the west. Later, railroads would overtake canals as the preferred trade route, but this early and ambitious effort offers a window into the vision of our founding fathers. Don’t miss Belle Isle, which served as a Confederate prison camp during the Civil War.

More information: Maps of the Canals and Belle Isle Prison

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