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The Most Important Parking Lot

For a generation, a Richmond nonprofit has envisioned plans and collected money to honor religious freedom. Does its new leader finally have an answer?



Alot of Big Things have happened in Richmond in the last 400 years, and the city never lets you forget it.

Patrick Henry bellowing "liberty or death"? Faithfully replayed every week or so. The feats of Confederate generals? Duly honored in bronze. Even the smallest bits of history — the movements of troops, the docking of ships — are commemorated with little plaques and plates you're apt to trip over while strolling through the city.

Yet one Big Thing remains virtually unremarked. It was a good deal quieter than ol' Patrick Henry. It was certainly not as glamorous (nor as gangrenous) as the War Between the States. But some call it the very biggest Big Thing that ever happened in Richmond, perhaps even in the United States.

It's the 1786 signing of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a law conceived and written by Thomas Jefferson that guaranteed religious freedom for all Virginians. The statute said that men could say anything they wanted about religion and would not be compelled to profess or follow any particular faith. It also ensured men could practice any faith they wished to follow.

Appalling! Atheistic! said many legislators and religious leaders. Yet with James Madison's skillful statesmanship, the statute was signed into law in 1786 in the temporary State Capitol at 14th and Cary streets.

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the first of its kind in this country, was later used as the basis for the religion clause of the First Amendment. Historian Garry Wills famously wrote that religious tolerance, "more than anything else, made the United States a new thing on earth."

The site of that signing is today a pay parking lot.

"We've got a parking lot that represents the most significant idea America ever had," says Hal Wingo, a co-founder of People magazine and trustee of the Council for America's First Freedom.

The council is a secular, nonprofit organization founded in 1984 for the sole purpose of honoring the statute and religious freedom. It owns the parking lot. And for a generation now, the council has been trying to figure out how to honor the statute and develop the site.

The nonprofit has variously proposed a $10 million Religious Freedom Center with a park and a three-sided laser-shooting pyramid; then a wholly different, towering monument to be designed by Michael Graves and placed on a James River island; then a new $25 million Religious Freedom Center.

None of these proposals has ever been translated into concrete.

Money keeps rolling into the council's account from state taxpayers — including a $1 million challenge grant this year — and private donors. The council also collects about a quarter of a million dollars annually from its pay parking lots. And soon the council will collect more money from a joint venture on a new downtown luxury apartment complex.

The council has become a paradox among nonprofits — an organization with a steady influx of money but no big project on which to spend it.

This state of inertia may be about to change. The council's new president, Robert A. Seiple, says the perpetually proposed Religious Freedom Center may never be built at all. Perhaps the best way to educate the world about religious freedom is not to build a grand monument, he says, but rather to shape the council into an educational center with a strong virtual presence. That is, a Web site.

After more than two decades, the council's supporters are ready to see something more happen. Richmond needs to embrace its long-ignored heritage as the birthplace of religious liberty, Wingo says: "If it can be done, I think that Bob Seiple will be the person who can lead it through to completion."

Ask most any Richmonder what happened 220 years ago at 14th and Cary streets — the lot across the street from a string of popular restaurants including The Hard Shell and Cha-Cha's Cantina — and the response will mostly likely be a shrug. Some may have noticed the turquoise-painted brick wall that declares the lot to be the site of the signing of the religious freedom statute, but they aren't sure what that means.

That's terrible, say many supporters of the council. And that's what they hope to change, Seiple says, "to make sure that what happened there is known by every generation."

Under British rule, residents of the Colonies were taxed to support the Anglican church and its ministers. In 1785, the Virginia Legislature was about to pass its own law that would tax citizens in order to provide salaries for "Teachers of the Christian Religion." This was tyranny, thundered Jefferson and Madison. Government should impose no religion on its people, they argued, nor should citizens bear the responsibility of supporting religion.

This law "will be a dangerous abuse of power," Madison warned the General Assembly. The measure failed.

Soon afterward, Jefferson submitted a bill that would guarantee religious freedom for all Virginians. The statute, which begins, "Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free," ensured that men would be free to express their opinion of religion and would not be compelled to profess or follow any particular faith.

The idea of utter religious freedom seemed dangerously revolutionary. Jefferson was reviled as an atheist and enemy of religion. State legislators fought bitterly over the statute in what Jefferson later called "the severest contest in which I have ever been engaged."

Yet Madison dexterously piloted the statute through the state legislature, and in 1786 it was signed into law in the temporary Capitol at 14th and Cary.

"Be it enacted by the General Assembly," the law reads, "That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities."

The law became the basis for other states' statutes and the religion clause of the First Amendment. Jefferson would later say that on his tombstone, he wanted to be remembered not as president of the United States, but as the author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and as the founder of the University of Virginia.

In 1984 — 198 years after the signing of the statute — a group of Richmonders decided that something had to be done to celebrate the looming bicentennial of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Historian and former Times-Dispatch editor Virginius Dabney assembled a group of community leaders and formed the Council for America's First Freedom.

Soon after the bicentennial celebration, the members decided to expand their mission from commemoration to education. Something permanent should be done to honor this Big Thing, they thought — this great, world-changing idea that originated in Richmond.

In the late 1980s the council announced its first big idea: a conference center and park commemorating religious freedom at 14th and Cary streets. The park would include a monument to religious freedom, envisioned as a three-sided pyramid. Shooting a colored beam of light skyward, it would symbolize liberty, eager proponents said.

In 1993, the council was given two pieces of land adjoining the site, valued then at around $850,000. The same year, the council unveiled plans for its $9.5 million Center for the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which included the park and a Jeffersonian brick-and-columns center. They held fundraisers, displayed schematics. Nothing happened.

In 1997, the council again announced plans to raise money for a monument on the site. Again, nothing happened.

In 2001, the monument idea resurfaced. Tommy P. Baer, now chairman of the council's board of trustees, says the board decided to create a monument honoring Jefferson, Madison and Monroe. They selected prestigious architect Michael Graves (yes, the one well-known for his Target teapots and sundries) to create the $19 million edifice.

The public heard only the barest details: The monument would be 300 feet tall, visible from I-95, and incorporate granite, steel and light. "It was kinda neat," Baer says, adding, "It made a statement, I will tell you that."

But difficulties arose when the council tried to place the monument on a James River island. "It would have looked great on Mayo Island," Baer says. "But we couldn't get the island, you know. And we couldn't get another place for it."

Longtime council President Carol Negus, who was a tireless proponent of building a monument, says she cannot comment on what happened. She is no longer with the council and declined a request for an interview.

In 2003, the council shelved the monument idea entirely. The board decided that an education facility would be far more meaningful, Baer says, and would be a longer-lived attraction. "You have a monument," he says: "People will come, they will see it. And they will have seen it."

So the council launched its current, four-year fundraising campaign. And this time, there was even more reason to be successful: The center would open by Jan. 16, 2007, the board said — the nationally designated Religious Freedom Day in the year of the state's much-hyped quadricentennial.

"We spent quite a bit of time and effort and finances in developing it," Baer says. "Went through some difficulties because the economic times are not particularly good." In the end, the council raised $10 million. But it was not enough money to break ground on the $25 million center, Baer says.

The bottom line: When the predicted hundreds of thousands of tourists visit Richmond in 2007, after more than 20 years of work and millions of dollars raised, the place where religious freedom was codified will remain a parking lot.

"They didn't get it right," says Wallace Stettinius, an organizational guru who has loaned his expertise to the council in the past.

All the ado about monuments and centers was misplaced, Stettinius says. Of course the place should be preserved, he says, but simply adding another "historic site" to the city's vast collection isn't the answer: "Richmond's kind of been there, done that."

Another challenge for the council is that its long history of unfinished projects hurt its ability to raise funds, Stettinius says. "They've had to struggle to live down their past," he says, "because [in] the philanthropic community, they didn't have much credibility."

The council has had luck with politicians, though. The state legislature has given generous grants to the council year after year, totaling at least $2.8 million since fiscal year 1995. This year the council received a $1 million challenge grant through the General Assembly — originally sponsored by former Gov. Mark Warner. One of its conditions is that in two years the council must match that money with private donations.

Four months after the grant, the council has raised $527,000 in matching funds. Seiple aims to match the rest and also expand the council's fundraising base beyond Richmond and Virginia. Recently he's traveled to Philadelphia and Provo, Utah, to solicit funds; he plans to visit Texas next month.

When he asks donors for money, Seiple says, he's heard no one ask why the council hasn't managed to build anything in 20 years. He focuses on the programming work the council has done, he says, and on the pressing need for religious liberty education in the face of recent incidents such as the riots incited by the Danish cartoons that depicted Muhammad.

The council is far from penniless.

At the end of 2004, the most recent year for which tax records are available, the council lists almost $1.5 million in revenue for the year and $5.7 million in assets (which includes its real estate). The council spent $495,000 on planning the "development of education center and monument."

Today, Seiple says, the council holds about $6 million in assets, including its real estate. Much of the $10 million from the ongoing campaign went to operating expenses, fundraising expenses and purchasing land, he says.

The 50 apartments at 14th and Main streets soon will bring in even more money.

Five years ago, the collection of decrepit, late-19th-century storefronts adjacent to the statute site was placed on the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods' list of "most endangered" historic properties. The council does not own the buildings, Seiple says, but instead has struck a deal with development firm SWA Architects to renovate them into usable office space and the 50 luxe apartments.

In what Seiple calls "the greatest sweetheart deal," the council arranged with SWA Architects to undertake the $1.7 million renovation of the buildings at no cost to the council. When SWA has recouped its costs (in about five years), the firm and the council will evenly divide the net annual income.

Exactly how this relationship works is difficult to explain, Seiple says: "All I can say is it's been a very good relationship for the council and financially made very good sense to do it this way."

The buildings were in sorry shape, encrusted by pigeons and crumbled by rain. The painstaking renovation left the council with an office befitting a distinguished Richmond nonprofit, all lofty tin ceilings and interestingly knotted floors. The most notable feature is a wide, carved staircase in the main room that ascends gracefully until it meets the ceiling. There it ends.

It's a staircase to nowhere — one of those lovely architectural details that had to be kept in the building, but serves no practical purpose.

It's up to Seiple to see that the Council for America's First Freedom finally becomes a stairway to somewhere.

Appointed as president in March, Seiple comes to the council with gleaming credentials. A Marine who served in Vietnam, Seiple spent 11 years as president of World Vision Inc., a prominent Christian relief and development agency that helps children around the world.

In 1998 President Bush appointed Seiple as the first-ever U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. In 2000 he founded the Institute for Global Engagement, a think tank that seeks to actively promote religious freedom worldwide.

Steely and amiable, he professes a deep personal dedication to the idea of religious liberty, the concept "that truly made us free," he says.

Most every country in the world has been torn by sectarian violence at some point, Seiple points out — but not the United States. In this country, religious differences have sparked furious debates and protests but never a war. The only reason we've been spared, he says, is Jefferson's principle of religious freedom.

Meanwhile, the State Department, in its 2006 International Religious Freedom Report, lists 20 countries in which religious freedom is threatened, whether by overt suppression or laws that favor certain faiths.

In Brunei, for example, people are allowed to practice faiths other than Islam — but proselytizing is forbidden, and they may receive financial incentives and housing for converting to Islam. In China, the report says, Falun Gong practitioners are sometimes subjected to "re-education" in labor camps. In North Korea, visitors have reported "that church services appeared staged and contained political content supportive of the regime," while defectors say they have witnessed government arrests and executions of members of underground Christian churches.

Seiple sees the primary goal of the council as "educational intervention" in an increasingly intolerant nation and world. It needs to work to increase civility and erase ignorance when it comes to discussion of religious differences, he says. It needs to build a world where religion and politics — and especially the collision of the two — are embraced, not avoided, as dinner-table topics.

The council already makes some efforts toward this goal. It organizes an annual student essay competition, now in its 14th year, on a specific topic related to religious freedom; hosts conferences on topics such as rule of law and the separation of church and state; and holds an annual awards ceremony to recognize "extraordinary advocates of religious freedom." In January it will honor former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, among others, at a banquet at The Jefferson Hotel.

Seiple wants to do more. He wants to create a religious diversity training course for corporative executives that may become the council's "signature program," he says. In September, the council began hosting a series of debates on religious issues at 10 law schools across the country. It then recorded the audio exchanges between the debaters — Jeremy Gunn, director of the ACLU's Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, and Kevin Hasson, president of the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty. Copies of a DVD that was made of the debate on religion and public schools at the University of Richmond will be made available free to any high-school teacher who wants it, Seiple says.

In December, the council will send out a press release unveiling the "Top 10 Myths of Religious Freedom," a collection of the most common misunderstandings that cloud the central concept — for example, the notion that it's illegal to pray in school. Seiple hopes the myths, compiled from the responses of about 90 experts, will be an effective way to spark discussion of religious freedom and to get the council into national media.

In September the council moved into its new offices at 14th and Main (beneath the luxe apartments), which it will show off to Richmonders at an open house Nov. 30. By May, the council expects to set up an exhibit on the "Faces of Religious Freedom," open to the public by appointment.

Seiple readily admits that the council has lost some credibility because of its many discontinued plans. "We have been very candid about the ups and downs of the council to date," he says. Now, Seiple says, it's time to move on.

He says he's never even heard of the early-'90s plan for the laser-shooting pyramid. Nor is he interested in talking about the Michael Graves monument or previous plans for a big center. "I'm not here to resurrect 15-year-old plans," he says firmly.

Instead he wants to focus on building the council's virtual presence. He envisions a grand and engaging Web site that will be a mecca for anyone interested in enlightenment about religious freedom: Children seeking information for school projects. Teachers looking for lesson plans and teaching materials. Journalists searching for solid, unbiased information on what religious freedom really means. People visiting to learn history, to settle arguments, to find out what their rights are.

Many of those who have long been involved with the council applaud this idea of building a legacy from bytes, not bricks.

"We need to be the source that people turn to for understanding about religious freedom," Wingo says. "And you can do that without a building."

The council's $6 million "is a good number," Stettinius says, "if you don't sink it all into bricks and mortar." The council's future, in his opinion, lies in its ability to build effective educational programs and outreach.

Charles F. Bryan Jr., executive director of the Virginia Historical Society, agrees. After Seiple took office, he sought Bryan's opinion of the council's plans to build a center. "He asked me point-blank," Bryan says, "and I said, 'I'm not sure the city needs yet another museum.'"

Yet the consensus is that the 14th and Cary site, where Madison and Jefferson spoke to the throngs of quarreling legislators, cannot remain a square of blacktop. It's "the most significant piece of undeveloped historic real estate left in America," Wingo says.

"It is a shame simply to have a parking lot," Seiple says. So what should be placed there? No remnants or even blueprints of the original temporary Capitol exist, so the council is not bound by any historic constraints.

Baer, who guided the council's board through its struggles to build a monument and then a center, still wants to see "a first-class facility" on the site. He pictures a center with hands-on activities for kids and conference space where the world's leaders could meet, "a religious-liberty Camp David." It's a matter especially close to Baer's heart, he says, because he lost three grandparents in the Holocaust, and as an infant narrowly escaped.

"There will be no facility like this in the world," he says. "It will be a place where not only children but adults will learn the history of religious freedom in our country. Will learn the greatest challenges to religious liberty and how we're dealing with it."

Seiple thinks, however, that those objectives can be achieved without an enormous center. "The larger audience will always be the virtual audience," he reasons. At the same time, he says, "I'm not advocating that we not have a building there. We need a building to properly represent the hallowed ground."

What Seiple envisions is a mixed-use development on the historic site — something that may include some space dedicated to religious freedom while also incorporating commercial use. The council doesn't want to sell the property, he says, but a lucrative development deal is possible. "I don't think that's going to be hard to do," he says.

The nature of the development "could be 50 things," he says. It could be luxury condos, or a parking garage, or a hotel or stores. Or all of those elements.

Of course, within that development you would need "something that pays respect to the hallowed ground," Seiple says, but it will take some creativity to figure out how best to do that. It could be done with a display, or with brochures. "Could it be done in the courtyard of a Courtyard Marriott?" he asks.

He says the board hopes to have made a decision about the site by early 2007.

The ultimate decision about what to do with the property will depend not only on Seiple, but on the council's board, as well as the council's ability to continue its financial success.

One day, the council's supporters believe, the council will finally fulfill its mission. One day Richmonders will understand and claim the earthshaking thing that happened at 14th and Cary.

"It's the most important thing that ever happened there. And it's the one thing Richmond should be known for," Wingo says — not the Civil War, which he calls "the saddest fact" in American history.

He imagines every city schoolchild learning about Richmond's role in religious liberty. He imagines every local corporation's letterhead mentioning its headquarters stand in Richmond, the birthplace of religious freedom.

"This is a great gift, in a way, that was given to Richmond long ago," Wingo says. And now it's time to claim it. S

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