News & Features » News and Features

The Flame Keepers

The Capitol Restoration project stirs debate: It’s “fraught with potential problems,” one official says.


It’s a flame that’s burned for 216 years, surviving two wars, a cholera outbreak and the “Capitol Disaster,” in which the building’s third floor collapsed. Now Schaar and Jamerson are at the heart of a sensitive matter: what to do about the next phase of the Capitol’s life, as the Commonwealth plans to amend one of architect, governor and President Thomas Jefferson’s most notable buildings.

Jefferson fashioned the Capitol in the image of the Maison Carée, an ancient Roman temple in Nimes, France. Jefferson said his building would serve as a “temple on the hill.”

“It is an important symbol of who we are as Virginians, as Americans,” observes, Kathleen Kilpatrick, director of the state’s Department of Historic Resources. “It’s intended to be interpreted as a temple of democracy — a great symbol of our shared beliefs.”

What’s right for this symbol today depends on whom you ask. Most experts and state officials say it is a 15,000-square-foot expansion that will house much-needed office space and a new visitors’ center. But as the state prepares to begin construction in April, for completion by the 2007 Jamestown Quadricentennial, some members of the Capitol Square Renovation Council are expressing doubts about the plan.

The General Assembly and the Warner administration recently signed off on $74 million — up from $55 million last year — for the three-year Virginia State Capitol Restoration Project. An architect, a construction team and a communications director have been hired. A foundation has been created to raise $20 million for education, interiors and landscaping, and to establish an endowment.

A proposed tunnel entrance below the south portico along Bank Street will usher more than 180,000 visitors a year into the basement of the Capitol. Unlike today, they’ll be shielded from rain and see Virginia’s history displayed in various forms before touring the grounds. Ostensibly, the tunnel is designed to facilitate tighter security as well.

The players in this project are diverse, the interests many, and practical and philosophical challenges have come up. Yet for a project of such dramatic scale, dissent has been uncharacteristically mute. Those who now are expressing it hope it will mount and make a difference.

The question is whether it’s too late. Construction begins April 21.

That’s welcome news for James Roberts, director of the state’s Department of General Services. As proposed, the Capitol’s expansion plan makes good business sense, he says. His agency is in charge of the state government’s 3 million square feet of office space, a half-million of which is empty or unusable, such as the Finance Building on Capitol Square.

“We’re involved in a series of dominoes,” he says of the ripple effect he expects the project will have. This time next year, the Old State Library’s renovation will be complete; next will come the Capitol and then the Finance and Washington buildings. Restoring the structures will mean state agencies now occupying and paying high rents for private space can move into cheaper state-owned facilities, he says. Roberts’ challenge is an administrative one, to see that the work gets not only the thumbs-up but is completed in time for the 2007 celebrations.

“This is a civics lesson in progress,” Schaar says. She and Jamerson share an intense love of the place and, combined, more than 60 years in its grip. “I was adamantly opposed to a Southern approach,” she says when the design for the expansion was first discussed. Soon she was sold. It is the only viable option, she says, to create extra space and promote the Capitol’s careful balance of modernization and historical significance.

Jamerson says visitors will be better served. “As soon as they hit the Capitol, they’ll be able to touch what Jefferson meant by the ‘temple on the hill,’” he says. The only obstacle the clerks anticipate is the temporary relocation of the General Assembly to the old State Library during its 2006 session while the Capitol’s interior is renovated.

Marvin Moss has his doubts. Moss is a member of the Capitol Square Preservation Council, a 15-member panel of state officials and appointees formed five years ago to study the Capitol and its needs. The underground project is “seriously flawed,” he says, and “fraught with potential problems,” both unforeseen and ignored, such as tremendous cost overruns — the U.S. Capitol’s similar underground expansion has tripled in size, doubled in cost — and a compromised experience for visitors. Moss contends the tunnel plan “treats people like moles” and is the result of a knee-jerk reaction to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and an unshakable consensus that no more new structures go up on Capitol Square.

Moss has company — some quiet, some not. Doug Harnsberger, an architect and vice chairman of the advisory council, doesn’t support the plan. In addition to concerns that the project’s price tag will significantly balloon, Harnsberger says it creates a “double standard” for legislative and public access to the Capitol. Whereas Moss’ protests are largely procedural, Harnsberger’s are philosophical.

“I believe the citizenry deserve to enter their Capitol at the same above-grade level as the legislators,” Harnsberger says. “Thomas Jefferson would not have condoned a subterranean tunnel entrance. If he were with us today, I imagine he would insist that all Virginia citizens deserve to walk into their hallowed ‘temple on the hill’ under the sunlight of providence. He might say, ‘A subterranean tunnel is not equal public access.’”

Jim Whiting, chairman of the advisory council, disagrees. He says the collaboration and commitment he’s seen will make the project a success. “We weren’t crazy about the idea” at first, Whiting says of the underground expansion concept. “When we listened to what the alternatives were, there were none.”

Whiting says change at the Capitol need not be controversial. Not long ago, two huge magnolia trees prominently flanked the building. One was diseased and dying. The group agonized about how the public would respond if the trees were removed. When they were, no one said a thing, Whiting says, and the Capitol’s appearance seemed to improve. “This is what we’re hoping will happen here,” he says.

The project’s principal architect, George C. Skarmeas of the Philadelphia office of Hillier Architecture, is also working on the U.S. Supreme Court renovation and the Old State Library. “If there is a defining moment in a career, this is it,” Skarmeas says.

Skarmeas is confident his design is precisely what Jefferson would envision. Meantime, Schaar and Jamerson remind him daily that the building is home to the oldest legislature in the Western Hemisphere. He says his biggest challenge is to meet people’s expectations. He says he knows how: “Ask the building and the site the right questions, and the building and the site will give the right answers.”

The restoration project is a legacy Schaar and Jamerson hold tantamount. “The legislators rely on us,” Schaar says. “We have to be able to look into the future” to anticipate their needs. They take the same approach with the Capitol. A century from now Jamerson hopes people will assess the statehouse and say, “Hey, they did a good job in 2004.” S

Letters to the editor may be sent to:

Add a comment