Capitol Square: A Display of Power

During our tour of Richmond, I was particularly impressed by Capitol Square.  The area is impressive, and fitting for a governmental building.  When I looked up the hill at the capitol building, the green grass that surrounds it, and the memorials to great Virginians, I was struck by its splendor; it stands as testimony to the power and wealth of the Commonwealth.

The idea to build a public space on Shockoe Hill came at a time during which free space in the city was increasingly being used for various private projects.  When Richmond became the capital of Virginia, legislature appointed a committee of wealthy property owners, under the direction of Thomas Jefferson, to purchase six city blocks.  They chose to buy the land which now comprises Capitol Square.  Due to a few delays, the construction of the Capitol took twenty years, but by September 1800 the building was complete.

The hill which comprises Capitol Square was in bad shape after the completion of the building.  The ground was rugged, dirty, and unsatisfactory for a state capitol.  In 1816, the Virginia General Assembly passed an act regarding improvements to Capitol Square.  Governor Wilson Cary Nicholas hired two men to complete this work, which was finished in 1820.  Little work was done until 1849, when a new monument was built on the square.  American sculptor Thomas Crawford won a nationwide competition for the rights of the monument, and the memorial was quickly constructed.  However, the process resulted in destruction of the landscaping completed thirty years ago.  Governor John Floyd decided to overhaul the work, hiring John Notman for the re-landscaping.

The Committee of Public Squares was created in 1851 due to the success of the public Capitol Square.  The committee determined that Richmond was due for population and economic growth, and for this reason secure public areas must be purchased and maintained.  This led to the creation of the city’s municipal parks program.  The City Council quickly purchased lots of land to secure public areas like Capitol Square.

Capitol Square is one of the better-maintained areas that we saw on our tour of the city.  This makes sense, as it is a symbol of power for the government, and one of pride for the people.  I noticed many similarities between Capitol Square and Hollywood Cemetery, another place that we visited on the tour.  For one, both areas are set apart; reserved for the public.  Throughout Richmond’s history, maintaining places for the public to use was an afterthought; space was used for business and housing.  Capitol Square and Hollywood Cemetery, however, were set apart in order to provide Richmonders with something special; a beautiful area meant to be enjoyed by all.  The two places also share an aesthetic similarity.  They are two impressive areas built up on a hill.  The architecture of both places displays the wealth of the highest society of Richmond.  Capitol Square was designed by Thomas Jefferson and a group of wealthy landowners; Cemetery Hill is populated by these people and many other wealthy Richmond citizens.  Capitol Square and Cemetery Hill are two areas of Richmond that display the wealth of certain citizens of the city.

Capitol Square is where the Virginia General Assembly holds its meetings.  It is also a destination for those interested in the monuments that surround the Capitol building.  The area also houses the Governor’s Mansion and a pre-Civil War bell tower.  These attractions are on the Capitol Square grounds because since the day that Thomas Jefferson and his committee bought the land, it has been designated as a place which holds power; a place where change happens.  Monuments honor great men who stepped through the doors of the Capitol building, as well as those who fought for change on the streets surrounding the square.  Far-reaching decisions have been made on that ground, and the square’s beauty is a testament to the power which lies there.

Capitol Square in Richmond has changed since the land was bought in the eighteenth century.  Amongst all this change, however, one trait has held constant; the sense of the power which the land, and the buildings which lay above it, possess.  Today, Capitol Square lies in Richmond as a testament to the power not only of Richmond, but of Virginia as a whole.

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