the first three statehouses at Jamestown were 1) the 1617 church, 2) Gov. John Harvey's home, and 3) the 1660 statehouse complex
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
The first representative assembly in Virginia met in the church building at Jamestown, between July 30-August 4, 1619. That structure, the third church building in the colony, was owned by the London Company of Virginia; separation of church and state did not occur for almost another 170 years.
the General Assembly started meeting in 1619 in the church at Jamestown, which archeologists have located and partially reconstructed just west of the brick church that was built later in the 1600's
Starting in the 1630's, the General Assembly chose to meet in the home of Sir John Harvey. The colony purchased that private home in 1640, after Harvey was replaced as governor and had to sell his assets in Virginia to satisfy his debts.1
One year after Gov. William Berkeley arrived in 1642, he authorized the House of Burgesses to meet separately from the governor's Council. The Council probably met in Berkeley's three rowhouses at Jamestown once they were completed in 1646, and the House of Burgesses may have used that location as well.2
In 1660, the colony built a statehouse complex on the eastern edge of the peninsula/island. Perhaps unwittingly, the buildings were constructed over numerous graves that dated back perhaps as far as the 1609-10 Starving Time. The statehouse was burned during Bacon's Rebellion in 1676.
the footings of the "Archaearium," built at the site of the 1660 statehouse to house museum exhibits, were placed between the graves of the settlers buried there during Jamestown's first decade
the outline of the 1660 statehouse complex, beyond the Archaearium, is interpreted for modern Jamestown visitors
The post-Bacon's Rebellion replacement structure burned by accident in 1698. After that statehouse was destroyed, advocates for moving the capital finally defeated supporters of remaining in Jamestown. The General Assembly decided to build a new capitol in Middle Plantation, which was renamed Williamsburg after King William in London.3
The first capitol at Williamsburg took four years to build, but was complete in 1705. The first floor was designed as two large rooms separated by a plaza. The House of Burgesses met in a large room on the east side, while the General Court met on the west side. The Governor's Council, a separate unit of the colonial government since 1643, met on the second floor.
Governor Francis Nicholson chose to call the new structure occupied by the General Assembly a capitol rather than perpetuate the term statehouse. The new home built in Williamsburg for the governor's residence, finished after Governor Spotswood arrived in 1710, was called the "Governor's Palace." That term may have reflected the cost-overruns; the structure's original cost was projected to be £3,000 but final cost was £6,000.4
For 20 years the new capitol building was unheated; wood-burning fireplaces were added finally in 1723. Fire destroyed the building in 1747, though most of the brick walls survived. Governor Gooch encouraged rebuilding in Williamsburg, but the House of Burgesses approved rebuilding there in 1748 only by a close 50-48 vote. That decision blocked efforts to move the colonial capital (and build a new capitol) at a site accessible by water, potentially further inland on the Pamunkey River in Hanover County.
A new design was used for the second capitol building at Williamsburg, which was completed between 1751-53 on the same site. During the American Revolution, the legislators decided to move the capital further inland to Richmond.
The abandoned second capitol building in Williamsburg was used after 1780 for a variety of purposes afterwards. The building disappeared in stages. Half was demolished to recycle the bricks in 1793, and the remainder burned in 1832. Other structures were built on top of the old foundations, and even the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad tracks were run through the site in 1881.5
Visitors to Williamsburg today will see a reconstruction of the first capitol building, the one that burned in 1747.
The decision by Colonial Williamsburg to rebuild the first capitol has created a historical anachronism for the colonial-era interpretation, because most reconstructions there are based on appearance in the 1770's. Few tourists realize that the capitol building used for tours and providing a backdrop for re-enactments of Revolutionary War events is a recreation of a building that disappeared almost 30 years before the American Revolution started and the Fifth Virginia Convention declared its independence from Great Britain on May 15, 1776.
Colonial Williamsburg chose to rebuilt the first capitol building in Williamsburg (used between 1703-1747) rather than the version of the structure that was in place during the American Revolution (shown above)
Source: Historical collections of Virginia, Skirmish at Richmond, Jan. 5th, 1781 (p.329)
Since John D. Rockefeller started providing the funding, Colonial Williamsburg has focused on recreating how the town looked at the time of the American Revolution. Reconstruction of the building that burned in 1747 rather than the structure that existed in the 1770's has created the "schizophrenic problem of narrowly focusing on the events of the Revolution in the wrong building" because the:6
Scholarship completed after the reconstruction in 1934 has revealed errors in the replication of even the first capitol. The rebuilt version is more grand and more symmetrical than what the colonists built in Virginia at the start of the 18th Century.
Just as Jamestown was replaced by Williamsburg, Williamsburg was replaced Richmond as the capital city. Jefferson proposed the move in 1776, but the General Assembly did not decide to abandon Williamsburg until later in the American Revolution, in 1779. Moving the capital further inland was expected to reduce the potential of enemy attack, mimicking the old advice of the London Company in 1606 to locate Jamestown far upstream to avoid the Spanish.
Moving inland was good advice in 1606, but Richmond was not far enough inland in 1781. The British found they could seize that new capital without much effort during the American Revolution. In 1781 Benjamin Arnold and then Gen. William Phillips forced the rebellious Virginia leaders to flee. At one point, the General Assembly met as far inland as Staunton.
When Benjamin Arnold led British troops and organized loyalists to Richmond in January, 1781, American defenses collapsed quickly. After forcing the militia to flee and reaching Church Hill, Arnold sent Governor Thomas Jefferson a proposal - allow his troops to remove the valuable tobacco from the private warehouses, and Arnold would not burn the capital. Jefferson rejected the proposal, and from his safe location in Manchester he was forced to watch Arnold destroy public records and burn tobacco-filled warehouses.7
Because the capital of Virginia had been moved from Williamsburg only in 1780, there was no capitol building when Richmond was captured by Arnold. The legislators were meeting in two commercial buildings at the corner of 14th and Cary Streets when the British arrived in January, 1781. Government officials fled before the British soldiers reached Richmond. When Arnold destroyed other parts of the capital city, he ignored the wooden structures that had been rented for the "rebel" legislators.
The General Assembly met in the same rented commercial buildings for seven years after they returned to Richmond in October, 1781. The legislators finally moved from the corner of 14th and Cary Streets after the new Jefferson-design capitol building on Shockoe Hill was ready for occupancy in October, 1788. By 1811, those commercial buildings had been torn down.8
The location of that new building on Shockoe Hill was determined in May, 1780, when the General Assembly passed "An act for locating the publick squares, to enlarge the town of Richmond, and for other purposes." That law also called for separate buildings to house officials responsible for legislative, executive, and judicial functions, reflecting the separation of powers defined in the 1776 Virginia constitution.
St. Johns Church, where Patrick Henry made his "give me liberty or give me death" speech during the Second Virginia Convention in 1776, was a more-central location that Shockoe Hill. The government chose to move from the Governor's Palace and Capitol in the center of Williamsburg to a site that was on the western edge of Richmond. In the new capital, Shockoe Hill offered six squares of undeveloped land, enough for the state to create Capitol Square and erect different government buildings.
Soon after moving the state government to Richmond in April, 1780, Governor Thomas Jefferson - who was also Director of the Public Buildings of Virginia - started planning the extension of city streets and the development of public buildings on Capitol Hill (formerly Shockoe Hill). He also designed a new capitol using ideas from an old Roman temple in France, the Maison Carrée in Nîmes. He later went to France as the ambassador from the United States, but the Virginia State Capitol design predates that trip.9
Jefferson's concept of basing public buildings on the design of temples can be dated further back to 1771-72, near the start of Lord Dunmore's service as colonial governor. When he was around 30 years old, Jefferson sketched out plans for what may have been a replacement for the Governor's Palace. He drew ideas from Palladio's Four Books on Architecture, but Jefferson initiated the idea of using neoclassical design for public buildings.10
Thomas Jefferson was inspired by the Maison Carrée in Nîmes, France, when he designed the Capitol of Virginia and initiated the neoclassical style of architecture for public buildings in the United States
Source: Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson: Creating A Virginia Republic
The new capitol, built according to Jefferson's design, was completed in 1787. Within a decade, the exposed brick had been whitewashed to provide a more impressive exterior.
The exterior may have been painted in different colors, even after the exterior was covered with stucco with lines inscribed to make it look like stone. Mimicking stone created a false but grander look for the state legislature's building, similar to the approach used by George Washington for the exterior of Mount Vernon and by Thomas Jefferson at the entrance to Monticello.
Jefferson's model of the capitol, sent from France to guide construction of the building in the 1780's, has five different paint schemes that apparently reflect the different exterior appearances between 1798-1904.11
the paint scheme for the Virginia State Capitol, prior to the coating with stucco, is not well understood but may have included contrasting colors
Source: Library of Virginia, Virginia State Capitol (Howard W. Montague, attributed)
During the Civil War, Richmond became the capital of the Confederacy. Between July 1861-March 1865, the Virginia State Capitol served double-duty as the meeting space for the Confederate Congress as well as the Virginia General Assembly, minus the members from western counties who created the Restored Government of Virginia and met in Wheeling until West Virginia was created in 1863.
Starting on July 20, 1861, the Provisional Congress of the Confederacy met in the Virginia State Capitol. The Virginia General Assembly had adjourned in April, and the Virginia Convention of 1861 concluded at the end of June after voting to invite the Confederacy to move its capital from Montgomery, Alabama to Richmond.
Until the first Confederate elections in November 1861, it was a unicameral body. Meetings of the Confederate Congress between July 20-September 3 were held in the one room used by the Virginia House of Delegates, on the north side.
After members of the Confederate Senate were chosen, the Virginia Senate's chamber on the opposite side of the Capitol was reconfigured to serve as the Confederate Congress's House of Delegates meeting space. That allowed the Virginia House of Delegates to reclaim its room, while the Senate of Virginia moved to a new location one floor higher in the building. The Confederate Senate also met on that upper floor during its existence between 1862-1865.
At one point in December 1861, the building hosted four separate elected groups - the Virginia General Assembly, the Confederate Congress, the reconvened Virginia Convention of 1861, and the Electoral College counting votes for President and Vice-President of the Confederacy. The General Assembly found the building to be crowded, but rejected a proposal in 1863 to purchase the nearby Exchange Hotel and convert it into a new capitol for the Confederate Congress.12
the Capitol was used by both the Virginia legislature and Confederate Congress for four years
Source: Illustrated London News, The Civil War in America: Sketches from Richmond, Virginia (August 10, 1861)
a crowd assembled at the Capitol after the Confederate victory at Manassas in July, 1861
Source: Library of Congress, State Capitol
The Evacuation Fire in April, 1865 destroyed many official records stored in buildings at the base of Capitol Hill, but the flames did not reach the capitol building itself.
Capitol Square (looking northwest from the corner at 9th and Bank Street) provided a buffer of green space that protected the capitol building from destruction in the 1865 Evacuation Fire
Source: Library of Congress, View of capitol square
the Virginia State Capitol survived the April, 1865 Evacuation Fire without damage
Source: Illustrated London News, View taken from south side of Canal Basin, Richmond, Va., showing Capitol, Customs House, etc., April, 1865
the Capitol in Richmond after arrival of the Union Army (note that the main entrance was on the side, not via the colonnade in the front)
Source: Library of Congress, The State Capitol, Richmond, Va., April, 1865
steps were not added on the front (south side) of the Capitol building until 1904-1906, when the wings were added on the east and west sides to create chambers for the House of Delegates and State Senate
Source: Library of Congress, Richmond, Va. Front view of Capitol (1865)
Thomas Jefferson has anticipated separate structures on Capitol Square for legislative, executive, and judicial operations of the state government. A separate Executive Mansion was completed in 1824, but budget constraints limited construction of courthouses. A courtroom was built above the House of Delegates chamber, with a gallery above that courtroom for observers. The support pillars affected the view inside that chamber, and those pillars were removed. The courtroom sagged but remained intact until 1870.
In 1870, a legal fight over the selection of the mayor of Richmond after the end of Reconstruction attracted a large crowd. Up to 400 people crowded into the Supreme Court of Appeals in that courtroom above the House of Delegates. The center beam supporting the courtroom finally broke, the gallery collapsed, and everything fell down into the unoccupied House of Delegates chamber:13
the collapse of the courtroom and gallery filled with observers of a court case in 1870 resulted in the Capitol Disaster, killing 62 and wounding about 200 people
Source: Harper's Weekly, Richmond calamity -- Interior of Hall of Delegates -- Getting out the dead and wounded (May 14, 1870)
digitized by Virginia Commonwealth University, James Branch Cabell Library - Special Collections and Archives
rescuers had to use ladders to get into the House of Delegates chamber, since the Virginia State Capitol was built above a full basement
Source: Harper's Weekly, Richmond calamity -- Removing the dead and wounded from the Capitol (May 14, 1870)
digitized by Virginia Commonwealth University, James Branch Cabell Library - Special Collections and Archives
in 1912, the State Capitol had expanded so the House of Delegates could meet in an eastern wing (on the right - view is looking north) and the State Senate in a wing on the western side
Source: Library of Congress, Panoramic view of Richmond, Va
the Beaux-Arts building north of the Virginia State Capitol is the old city hall for Richmond
Source: Library of Congress, Aerial view looking northeast - Virginia State Capitol
the Bell Tower was constructed in 1824 to provide security for the government office complex
Source: Library of Congress, Old bell tower, Richmond, VA (1908)
the Virginia State Capitol in 1988, with St. Paul's Church in the background
Source: Library of Congress, Southwest facade, main block, looking northwest