The granite-clad Old City Hall image courtesy Cook Collection, Valentine Richmond History Center
Forget the politics that took place within the building — Richmond's Old City Hall has always seemed to put up a fight.
The push to build it in the first place was a struggle, and within 60 years, it had come to be known as an "architectural monstrosity."
The first City Hall was a domed structure designed by Robert Mills and completed in 1816. But by the 1850s, it had been so poorly modified and maintained that city fathers contemplated a new building. The Civil War intervened. Then the 1870 Virginia Capitol collapse that killed 62 people sent a jolt of anxiety through city officials. Condemned as dilapidated enough to soon fall down, the Mills building in 1874 proved instead solid and difficult to rip apart.
City leaders tabled an 1877 plan to replace it and moved administrative offices to a cramped, one-story downtown building for more than 20 years.
In May 1882, Councilman Andrew Pizzini Jr. demonstrated that citizens wanted a new city hall, and the council approved a budget of $300,000 for the project.
Among the proposals was one from Elijah E. Myers, a Detroit architect known for state capitols and other government buildings. An acknowledged talent, he was also an incompetent businessman, notes historian Robert Winthrop. Several Myers buildings "suffered some of the most spectacular cost overruns of the Victorian period."
The Myers plan was rejected in 1885, along with 27 other ideas, as being too expensive. The next year, City Council went with Myers anyway.
The City Hall project involved scores of pick-and-shovel excavators, cart drivers, teams of skilled artisans, and black and white tradesmen. The building committee at first denied blacks entry to the job site until it was overruled by the council.
A band of stonecutters in a shed near the job site carved the ornate columns and decorations. None of the building's four corners are similar.
City Hall opened in all its High Victorian Gothic majesty on a 42-degree Thursday evening, Feb. 16, 1894, in the middle of a national economic depression. The public ambled through and marveled during seven nights.
The final cost: $1,318,349.19 — more than four times the original budget.
The building's clock tower, 180 feet from the street and accessed by a spiral stairway, proved an attraction for newlyweds and tourists who left behind a filigree of graffiti.
Officials wanting either an annex or a new building began criticizing City Hall soon after its opening. This continued through most of the 20th century.
Times-Dispatch writer Bill Edwards observed in 1949, "To judge from newspaper files, the words ‘architectural monstrosity' have been used so often to describe City Hall that they have well taken their place as synonyms for it."
Richmond's administration and court system outgrew the grimy building. Most city offices moved out in 1962, and the courts left in 1977. Old City Hall stood vacant as city and state officials proclaimed its usefulness ended. In the late 1970s, a committee of prominent supporters formed to petition for saving Old City Hall. From the fall of 1978 into late 1979, the Historic Richmond Foundation and its allies conducted a vigorous publicity campaign. They packed City Council meetings and took out a full-page newspaper ad featuring 1,000 signatures.
The Chamber of Commerce recommended that the state procure the building and lease it to the foundation. On Oct. 27, 1981, the city accepted an offer by the General Assembly to buy Old City Hall.
After an involved renovation, the building reopened for private offices during a solar eclipse on June 1, 1981. In 2005, Gov. Mark Warner used emergency powers to buy the remaining lease for state offices. Lobbyists, out-of-town newspapers and Virginia Commonwealth University have offices there today.
Old City Hall is "difficult to evaluate, largely because there are so few buildings which compare with it," Winthrop writes. "It is best regarded as a one-of-a-kind building, a singular expression of Richmond's civic pride at an important time in its history."