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State Capitol, 1900 Photo courtesy Valentine Richmond History Center
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Construction of a new wing on the State Capitol, 1905 Photo courtesy Cook Collection, Valentine Richmond History Center
Not everyone approved of the 1904-1905 additions to the Virginia State Capitol, as envisioned by Petersburg-born Norfolk architect John Kevan Peebles. Richmond architectural historian Mary Wingfield Scott sniffed that the "fat little wings" provided more meeting room for the legislature but "permanently impaired the beauty of the building."
From the time of its design by Thomas Jefferson, the Capitol was criticized for being too small and impractical. Jefferson had received the request from the Virginia Directors of Public Buildings to design the Capitol in 1785, while serving as the new nation's ambassador to France. The site — after extensive legal wrangling by Church Hill property owners, who wanted Virginia's seat on their promontory — was Shockoe Hill. During the late 18th century, it offered an unobstructed panorama over the mighty falls of the James River. Jefferson had long thought of a new Virginia Capitol as a "temple" to Liberty and Justice. He wanted to build it there.
The former Virginia governor became enamored of Maison Carrée, a ruined temple in Nîmes, France. He was fascinated by renderings of the structure but didn't actually see the place — and swoon for it — until 1787. He wrote to a friend, the Comtesse de Tessé, "Here I am, Madam, gazing for whole hours at the Maison Carrée, like a lover at his mistress." Jefferson asked that the already-underway foundation digging in Richmond be halted so that it could more closely resemble the Nîmes temple.
Unable to direct the work from 4,000 miles away, he sent a detailed plaster model by the expert Jean-Pierre Fouquet to, as Jefferson put it, guide "workmen not very experienced in their art." (The model still exists for public view.) For managing day-to-day matters, Jefferson hired revered French draftsman and architectural classicist Charles-Louis Clérisseau. He advised Jefferson to make the portico shallower than that of the Maison Carrée to provide better light for the southern rooms. Against Jefferson's instructions, the building was placed upon a high basement, the capitals of the columns were altered, and entrances were put on the sides. He'd called for a flight of monumental front stairs, but contractor Samuel Dobie eschewed them to give the basement offices better light.
After at last seeing the building in its near-complete state, Jefferson wrote to confidante William Short on Dec. 12, 1789: "Our new Capitol, when the corrections are made … will be an edifice of first rate dignity. Whenever it shall be finished with the proper ornaments (which will not be in this age) it will be worthy of … the most celebrated remains of antiquity."
Capitol historian Mark Greenough chuckles. "As an architectural historian once told me, this is typical Jefferson being his passive-aggressive self." Jefferson, says Greenough, wanted the Capitol to ignite an architectural trend. "He's building this as a prototype to be plagiarized by anyone, everywhere, with his blessing." Jefferson's vision for U.S. public and civic architecture inspired designs in Washington, D.C., and state capitols in Tennessee and Kentucky. To this day, the design reverberates in churches, academic institutions and private homes.
On April 27, 1870, the collapse of an overcrowded balcony in the building's second-story courtroom sent falling debris smashing through the floor, trapping legislators meeting in the room below. The "Capitol Collapse" killed 62 people. With the interior ruined, there was talk of razing the building. But demolition costs money. The General Assembly at last impaneled a 1902 commission to choose an architect for a huge overhaul. On April 2, the group issued a call for proposals, setting a deadline of May 6. Several firms challenged the time restrictions.
Peebles delivered his proposal on May 13, 1902, but political tussling, rival firms and budget considerations stymied progress. Legislators liked Peebles' ideas, but other firms, like Richmond's go-to prestige builders Noland and Baskervill, wanted the commission. Peebles' wife, Sally, was cousin to Norfolk attorney and one-term legislator James Mann. Mann's business partner was S. Heth Tyler, son of former governor J. Hoge Tyler. Peebles offered both laywers $1,000 to lobby dithering lawmakers to accept his design over the others.
Peebles' understanding of Jeffersonian design principles wasn't a question. He and previous partner J.E.R. Carpenter designed Norfolk's Monticello Hotel and the University of Virginia's Fayerweather Gym. Their buildings acknowledged Jefferson's sense of balance and proportion.
In March 1904, the General Assembly approved a $250,000 budget for the Peebles plan. Noland and Baskervill oversaw the process. Peebles called for gutting the building, removing the roof and replacing the original wood supports with steel beams, for fire protection and strength. He issued specific instructions for saving and re-installing much of the original interior woodwork. The new Capitol, with its wings and stairs, was delivered for $244,752.75.
In 1907, Peebles created buildings for the Jamestown Tercentennial Exhibition and re-imagined Richmond's fire-damaged Jefferson Hotel. His firm designed 10 buildings at U.Va. during his 42 years of Norfolk practice.
NOTE: This article has been corrected since publication.