Virginia Capitol Connections Quarterly Magazine
Legislators and visitors who returned to Capitol Square for the first time in over a year for the recent special session likely noticed a few changes to the historic grounds.
The Department of General Services is in the midst of multiple construction and renovation projects that will result in substantial changes to the Capitol Square Complex after 2021. For now, that means construction fences and closed spaces, but visitors soon will see improved amenities and facilities all across the complex.
Some changes already are obvious.
DGS finished work to replace the skylight at the Capitol portico plaza just in time for the start of the special legislative session August 2. The former skylight was replaced with a new granite compass rose inset on the plaza exterior, and a grand new lighting element in the main landing of the Capitol Visitor’s Center.
The impressive new lighting element over the Thomas Jefferson statue is approximately double the size of the former skylight, at over 28 feet in diameter. Made in Virginia, the lighting element will be programmed to mimic typical daylight changes.
Visitors also will note the absence of the 10-foot bronze Harry F. Byrd statue, which DGS removed July 7 at the direction of the General Assembly.
Three additional projects will be completed later this year.
Security enhancements at North Drive include a new entrance that is reminiscent of the 1865 entry gate, the addition of retractable bollards and replacement of the existing Division of Capitol Police post. These additions will provide for a more secure vehicular entrance to the grounds.
Just around the corner from the North Drive entrance, DGS is replacing the concrete sidewalk adjacent to Capitol Square with a herringbone brick paver pattern consistent with others in and around the Square. Six in-ground planters were removed, and light fixtures will be installed to match those on Capitol Square. In addition to a more aesthetically pleasing western border to Capitol Square, the completed project will result in a broader walking path and increased visibility.
On the eastern side of the Capitol Square Complex, the 76-year-old Ferguson Building, located between the Madison and Monroe buildings, has served as a maintenance shop for years. By the end of 2021, it will reopen as a K9 training facility for Capitol Police.
In 2022, major renovations will be complete on two historically significant buildings around Capitol Square: Morson’s Row and Old City Hall.
Morson’s Row, located on the east side of Governor Street behind the Executive Mansion, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Italianate-style houses resemble the row housing known as “bow front” that were popular in Boston around the same period in which they were constructed in the 1850s.
After purchasing the three buildings in the 1970s and ’80s, the Commonwealth used them for agency office space. Once restoration of the nearly 170-year-old buildings is complete, they will return to state office use.
The renovation of the 23,000-square-foot, four-story buildings also includes construction of an additional 7,000 square feet that includes a tower that will serve as the main entrance and other building elements that will connect the three townhomes.
While the renovation will provide a modern workspace, it will keep intact historic details like the ornamental marble mantles in the former parlors. The exterior also has been returned to its original cream color.
On the north side of Capitol Square, Old City Hall is well known for its Gothic Revival style. Next spring, the National Historic Landmark will reopen following the most comprehensive renovation since it was constructed between 1886 and 1894.
DGS is restoring the roof and exterior stone walls to their original condition, replacing all of the electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems, refurbishing all 861 historic windows, making the building ADA-accessible and installing elevators that are up to current standards. The courtrooms are being restored to their original conditions and the atrium will return to its original wood and a more historically accurate paint scheme.
New clock hands will replicate the original wooden ones, as the clock tower is restored to its working condition. DGS also will replace the skylight to allow natural light to stream into the atrium.
Once complete, it will house the Division of Capitol Police, Department of Human Resource Management, Division of Legislative Automated Systems and Capitol Square Preservation Council.
Next door to Old City Hall, construction is breezing along on the new General Assembly Building and its accompanying parking deck.
The new 414,000-square-foot building is rising on the same site footprint of its 320,000-square-foot predecessor.
Demolition began in 2017, as contractors braced the historic 1912 façade that was retained from the original classically designed Life Insurance Company of Virginia Building. The rest of the 14-story building rose up around that façade, with all 1,280 precast simulated limestone panels now in place. Window installation will be complete soon, as crews continue work on the interior buildout.
Once complete in late 2022, the new GAB will feature a large, first-floor cafeteria, a second-floor gallery, and a beautiful two-story commons area where the public can gather between legislative meetings. Committee rooms on the upper floors offer scenic views of the Richmond skyline, and numerous efficient committee and subcommittee rooms will welcome visitors and legislators. The largest committee room will hold approximately 389 audience members, over 100 seats more than the largest committee room in the old GAB.
The new GAB will provide a more functional, modern space for not only the legislators and staff who use the space for the important work of the Commonwealth, but also for the thousands of visitors who come each year to participate in the legislative process.
The new building, which should open in time for the 2023 General Assembly session, will be connected by underground tunnels to the parking garage and, eventually, to the Capitol underground extension.
The 500-car, seven-level parking deck will feature 25 electric charging stations, first-floor office space for legislative commissions and other offices, and parking for both legislative and executive branch employees.
Digging begins soon for the tunnel to connect the new GAB to the Capitol. The approximately 600-foot tunnel will be constructed in two phases, with a pause for the 2022 Inauguration and legislative session. The tunnel is expected to be complete in late 2023.
Once all these projects are complete, DGS plans to turn its attention to the Pocahontas Building east tower site in order to construct a new building for the Supreme Court of Virginia and the Court of Appeals. The General Assembly authorized and funded detailed design for this project earlier this year.
So when you run into fencing or a closed sidewalk around Capitol Square, don’t be frustrated. Just know that good things are happening as DGS works to provide modern amenities for those who visit or work around Capitol Square while maintaining and protecting the historic attributes that make this place so special.
Dena Potter is Director of Communications at Virginia Department of General Services.