Old City Hall on East Broad Street. (photo courtesy of The Valentine)
It could always be worse, Richmond. No really.
Our parade of 79 mayors this November leads to No. 80. Will it be our lucky number? Like the old Eight Ball used to say, "Signs Hazy Now Check Back Later."
You got to go way back — and I mean way back to a final violent spasm of Reconstruction — to see how bad a breakdown of civic order in Richmond can get.
In March 1870, the disliked radical Republican mayor George Chahoon, from New York, refused to step down following elections in favor of Richmond Dispatch publisher and a Conservative party founder Henry K. Ellyson. The Chahoonists holed up in the 17th Street Market House while the Ellysonites seized the domed City Hall. Richmond for several weeks struggled to function under two mayors, courts and police forces. Scuffles and gunplay ensued that hastened the intervention of federal soldiers. One man died and numerous bystanders were injured.
The whole mess went to court. On the day of the decision at the Capitol building, April 17, 1870, the overcrowded Court of Appeals balcony collapsed, killing more than 60 people and injuring hundreds. On May 29, the Court of Appeals found for Ellyson, but in the formal election, Chahoon ran — and won, though Ellyson supporters stole a Jackson Ward voting box. A special election was then called, but Ellyson declined to run. Instead, Richmond’s mayor became New Jersey Roman Catholic Confederate veteran and editor, Anthony Keily. (The whole affair was called "The Municipal War.")
Due to the Capitol collapse, nervous city officials began to suspect almost all of the city's vintage public buildings. For a time, there was discussion of moving the legislature from the Thomas Jefferson-designed Capitol building. Attention turned to City Hall, designed by Robert Mills, and a bookend to his nearby Monumental Church. Cracks in the noble dome indicated to authorities not upgrades or repairs, but instead demolition. Work commenced in July under the direction of City Engineer Wilfred Cutshaw. As it turned out, the building was as “structurally sound as it was beautiful and artistic,” wrote Earle Lutz. Still, out of this error we got the majesty of what is today called Old City Hall, which the city eventually abandoned in favor of current building, which resembles a space heater.
But Richmond's problems go deeper -- like China Syndrome deep -- than the physical building. I've tried in a recent series of Flashback columns to get at the nature of Richmond's problem. This is a big topic, and one reason why I'm contributing to this blog, because if I don't, I might hurt myself.
Please, help me help you help us. We need a candidate who is from here, who knows the city but is not hidebound by the worst of our political and cultural traditions. A person of a certain vision who possesses more than a modicum of pragmatism. Let that individual have a depth of character that does not exclude humor, or wisdom, or imagination, or a true appreciation of the city's best aspects. Let that person not believe he or she to be the smartest person in the room just because he or she happens to be mayor.
And, by the way, you want to know a hard, painful truth? You — yes, you reading these very words right at this precise instant — yes, you — are the way any change will happen in Richmond's governance. Grousing on a bar stool and kvetching from your coffee shop perch on Facebook ain't gonna cut it. Not for us, or you, or the history and future of this great and difficult city.
But while you're figuring out how to make that sudden shift, you might benefit from knowing how we got here and — insofar as I can possibly explain — why.