As physically and mentally grueling as a session of the Virginia General Assembly is, as many heartaches and headaches as it produces, and despite the 12-hour days and ups-and-downs of seeing good bills advance only to see them watered down or even defeated, or bad bills pass, there is one thing that keeps us (or at least me) inspired and lobbying legislators with optimism: Mr. Jefferson’s Capitol. It even (rightly) tempers the glow of victory with magnanimity.
Knowing the momentous events that took place there (and take place there), the towering figures who have purposefully paced its marble floors and filled its stately chambers, as well as the man who designed it, gives perspective to passing good bills and killing bad ones — at once it’s not saying a whole lot, yet still a significant contributor to the continuum of representative government, the oldest continuously meeting one in the Western Hemisphere, at that. Attempts at poetic prose and the mysticism and majesty of history aside, it’s one cool workspace! After all, who gets to work in a 1788 building as modern as it is historic with some of the most interesting characters in the country?
It’s hard to believe some people in the country, let alone Virginia, still don’t realize what a treasure the capitol is, but that number will shrink early next year when a PBS special on the 10 of the most influential buildings in America airs. The production crew shot video in Capitol Square this week, as well as at U.Va. and Monticello as background to Jefferson’s Temple of Democracy.
Jefferson’s Temple to Democracy sits on Richmond’s Shockoe Hill. Originally in the middle of nowhere for all to see and from which to take inspiration. Historians and architects agree. It’s a treasure we never take for granted.
That’s what it is, of course. Situated on Shockoe Hill and reminiscent of a Roman Greek classical temple in France, Jefferson built it as he did and where he did so that people far and wide would be reminded of, and respectful of, their freedom. High rise buildings now block the reach of the temple, but not its influence. Geoffrey Baer, the host of the documentary 10 Buildings That Changed America, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch today:
The Virginia State Capitol really started the tradition in this country of government buildings looking like Roman and Greek temples.
But its not only the outside that the show’s producers keyed on. It will play up Jefferson’s most fascinating architectural aspect, its interior rotunda, as well a skeleton look at the buildings walls. That’s appropriate because as awesome as the outside is, the inside is nothing less than an office masked as a museum. Imagine talking over education reform with a senator next to the most valuable piece of marble in North America? That the old is always new and regenerative alone makes this Temple unique. As places of worship are supposed to do that, this secular temple refreshes us not with a worship of government, but a love of liberty.
The 10 buildings selected were judged by architectural historians and others to have had a powerful architecturally but also an influence “on the way we live,” according to Baer. The capitol influenced the U.S. Capitol as well as banks across America, according to the show. If only it influenced the governance that comes out of the U.S. Capitol.
The Houdon statue of George Washington, done from life by a body cast, gives us the best impression of what he looked like and is considered the most valuable piece of marble in the continent.