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Capitol Square should capitalize on its grand setting.

A Capitol Proposal


If all went as planned, the Capitol's big front doors swung open for the inauguration Jan. 12 and members of the legislature processed across the portico to assigned seats beneath colossal, Ionic columns. Friends, supporters and news crews watched Warner, Kaine and Kilgore take their oaths from positions across the asphalt driveway: These spectators were perched on temporary bleachers which seemed precarious, rising high above the sharp drop of Capitol Hill itself.

After the big day, however, the Capitol's front doors were locked. In a nod to security, visitors to the famous building now enter through the back door. Employees and officials enter through a side door and reporters go through yet another entry.

The state has plans in the coming years to undertake a major renovation of Thomas Jefferson's landmark 1788 building. Much of what needs attention is infrastructural: The building will be reinforced and space updated for technology and heating. But as architects and general services begin planning, they (and curatorial minds) might also consider how the surrounding exterior spaces work, especially the sloping greensward on the south side of the building.

Capitol Square is one of America's great small public parks. It has always possessed a cloistered, even Vatican-like feel. This is partly because of its limited accessibility to vehicles. Plus, changes to the grounds have always been evolutionary. With its magnolias, azaleas and fountains, there is something languid and distinctly Southern about the space. But truth to tell, the park doesn't really fulfill its potential as a great public space. While the fencing was originally installed to keep livestock off the grounds, the hill itself was too steep to connect the state complex physically with the business district historically along Main Street. Until the 20th century, the skyline was much lower, and the Capitol lorded above the city in isolated splendor.

But today, high rises loom overhead. Thick foliage along the fence lines all but blocks views of the landmark from surrounding streets. It is difficult to see the front of the building from any angle. And almost disrespectfully, this first classical public building in the United States is often drowned in a sea of parked cars.

While the grounds have been meticulously maintained, over the past century, little attempt has been made to rethink them, 214 years after the building was completed.

The removal of two large magnolia trees recently at the foot of the front steps, however, opened things up considerably. Better yet, their disappearance suggested that certain sacred cows aren't so sacred.

Following are a few modest proposals:

First, the asphalt drive at the immediate foot of the broad, front steps might be expanded from being a narrow roadway and pushed southward another 20 feet to create a hilltop plaza. Patterned pavement — in granite, marble, brick or asphalt would create visual snap here. Vehicles could cross but not park on the plaza. It would be a staging area for events already held nearby: the annual Thanksgiving tributes from Native Americans, the lighting of the Christmas tree. And it would provide an expanded and more flexible space for inaugurations. It would inspire other activities. The outer edge of this plaza might be ringed with a wide, low wall that could double as seating for tourists and picnickers. Since the Capitol possesses one of our state's most dramatic facades, this enhanced space would put it to new uses.

Second, while steps currently lead down from the Capitol's front steps and into the park, they are halfhearted architecturally, and they peter out about halfway down the hill. These should be rebuilt in granite as a truly ceremonial staircase and run all the way down to Bank Street at the foot of the hill. The Italianate federal courthouse beyond is already aligned with the Capitol, and these stairs would create an axial connection. More than just enhancing already existing classical elements, by linking the Capitol with the financial district another critical link would be made. This would be between the quickly developing attractions such as the Canal Walk, Shockoe Slip, the Bottom and Brown's Island and Capitol Square. Visitors could proceed from points south to these steps and then walk up.

To get an idea of how these would work, think of how people love to descend (and to a lesser degree) ascend, the monumental classical staircase at Maymont that connects the Italian gardens with the Japanese landscapes below.

Urban steps are great, and Capitol Hill is Richmond's premiere slope. Yet we don't use it to maximum — and fun— effect. And perhaps we could place public refreshment stands and restrooms under the staircase.

Thirdly, while we're considering a powerful link between Capitol Square and Bank Street, why not widen Capitol Square? Bank is currently wider than it needs to be. (In the early 20th century, the city swapped a piece of land near the Medical College of Virginia campus for a slice of Capitol Square.) This extension of about 25 feet of greenspace would make up for the encroachment of the new hilltop plaza.

Finally, the perimeter of Capitol Square is too heavily planted. While it creates an oasis-like feeling for those inside the square, cuts down on traffic noise and offers a visual cushion against the hard streetscape, it also has drawbacks. If strategically placed, openings could create welcoming vistas of the Capitol. Since thousands of people encircle the Capitol each day, this jewel should be enjoyed visually from afar.

Much of Capitol Square works. On the north side of the Capitol, the axis between the Executive Mansion and the Washington statue is successful with its backdrop of spectacular architecture — the Old City Hall, the former State Library and Supreme Court, and the General Assembly building. But the Capitol's south side — its front side — is treated like a back door. Virtually every depiction of Richmond in the 19th century included the Capitol commanding the landscape. That has changed. But we can look at the 21st century realities of how downtown activity is shifting toward the canal and waterfront and establish a reconnect between our most famous building and the surrounding district. Jefferson's Capitol and its portico shouldn't be a theatrical backdrop once every four years at the inaugural hour and an afterthought on the intervening 1,459

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