As the new home of the Virginia General Assembly nears completion at the northwest corner of Capitol Square, the legislature’s temporary quarters in the Pocahontas Building at the southwest corner is contemplated for replacement to house the state’s highest courts.
The Virginia Supreme Court and Court of Appeals would make their home in a combination of newly constructed and newly renovated space in Richmond’s historic banking district, while the courts’ old home, built more than a century ago on the western side of Capitol Square, would remain vacant until its turn comes for renovation and new tenants.
To the east of the Capitol, beyond the newly renovated trio of historic buildings known as Morson’s Row, Richmond’s skyline could lose its tallest office tower, the Monroe Building, inviting an opportunity to transform the bleak 14th Street corridor and unlovely backside of Capitol Hill overlooking the city’s oldest neighborhood in Shockoe Bottom.
The replacement for the 26-story Monroe Building would be a new office tower of half the height on the site of the decaying former home of the Virginia Employment Commission at Seventh and East Main streets.
And the entrance to the Capitol on Bank Street would become a pedestrian plaza to welcome people, but not cars, to the National Historic Landmark.
It’s a quickly evolving vision, and historic preservation and architecture advocates are still trying to catch up to the state’s plans for the heart of Virginia’s seat of government.
“If we’re going to be engaged at all, now is the time,” retired architect Rob Comet told his fellow members of the Capitol Square Preservation Council earlier this month. “Every corner of Capitol Square is under construction.”
State officials first outlined public plans for a new Supreme Court Building and replacement of the Monroe Building in January, after Gov. Ralph Northam included almost $18 million in his proposed two-year budget for detailed planning of the two projects. The assembly kept the money in the budget it passed in late February, and the state briefed the preservation council on the plans in June.
“None of this should have been a surprise to any of them,” said Joe Damico, director of the Virginia Department of General Services.
Still, Comet and other preservationists say they were caught off guard when Richmond BizSense first reported the new state plans last month.
They were most fearful of potential threats to the Virginia Supreme Court Building, built in 1919 to house the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, and the 14-story western portion of the Pocahontas Building constructed in 1923 for the State & City Bank & Trust, later known as State Planters Bank and then United Virginia Bank.
“We are particularly concerned about the future of the Supreme Court Building and the West Tower of the Pocahontas Building, whose beautiful classical limestone facades contribute to the architectural dignity of Capitol Square and the walkability of downtown Richmond,” said Cyane Crump, executive director of Historic Richmond, the nonprofit whose mission is to preserve Richmond’s historic character and spark revitalization.
“With our history of proactively partnering with the commonwealth on Capitol Square projects over many decades, we look forward to an opportunity to learn more about the plans for the buildings in and around Capitol Square,” Crump said.
Craig Reynolds, chief administrative officer and curator at the preservation council, said Wednesday that the panel “has these projects on our radar” because of ongoing discussions with the Department of General Services, which manages state-owned properties and construction projects.
Damico, the agency’s director, received a leadership award from the National Association of Chief State Administrators this year in large part because of his role in “leading an ambitious series of construction and renovation projects that will result in substantial changes to the Capitol Square complex after 2021.”
He’s got his hands full. He has to convince the General Assembly, particularly its money committees, that proposed state projects are necessary for safety and efficiency but not unnecessarily expensive. He also has to assure labor advocates that state projects treat workers fairly and preservationists that history is honored, particularly in and around Capitol Square.
“There’s a balancing going on here,” he said.
Damico says preservationists have nothing to fear. The state never considered demolishing either the Supreme Court Building or the 1923 tower at the Pocahontas Building, only the extension of the former bank building constructed in 1962.
“There are no plans or thoughts that we would look to take down the ’23 building,” he said, citing its inclusion in the Main Street Banking Historic District listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register.
The eastern part of the building also is part of the expanded historic district, in part because it’s now more than 50 years old, but Damico doesn’t believe its preservation is necessary for that structure.
“There is much more significance to the ’23 building and we recognize that,” he said.
Similarly, Damico said the state recognizes the historic and architectural importance of the Supreme Court Building at the corner of North Ninth and East Franklin streets, even though the structure isn’t listed on the national and state historic registers.
“That building, as far as DGS is concerned, is a wonderful opportunity for renovation at the appropriate time, given its proximity to Capitol Square,” he said.
Originally, the state planned to renovate the Supreme Court Building and house the courts in the Pocahontas Building until the work was done, but the plan changed because of timing and cost.
Under that initial plan, it would have cost the state $173.8 million to renovate the 102-year-old Supreme Court Building, compared to $155.5 million to build a new one. Part of the renovation cost would have included upgrades to Pocahontas, once the assembly leaves late next year, to accommodate the courts on a temporary basis. The earliest the courts could have returned to their renovated home in the Supreme Court Building would have been 2029, compared with settling in a new building in 2026 or 2027.
“We saw that it was more cost-effective to build a new building and move them once,” Damico said.
Under the new plan, the courts would remain where they are. Meanwhile, plans call for renovating the 14-story western tower of the Pocahontas Building, tearing down the seven-story eastern part of the building and then constructing a new 233,000-square-foot building in its place.
The state expanded the scope of the project to include using and renovating the west tower of the Pocahontas Building, designed by the New York architectural firm Clinton & Russell, after the General Assembly adopted legislation this year to expand the Court of Appeals from 11 judges to 17, and guarantee a right of appeal in all criminal and civil cases.
Those changes, signed by Northam, would add about 50 people who would have to be housed in the court building and prompted the state to incorporate the historic 1923 structure into a new building. “What we would look to do is renovate,” Damico said.
The future of the 40-year-old Monroe Building is less certain, but the opportunities may be greater in a portion of Richmond’s historic downtown that has suffered through late 20th-century redevelopment built around the automobile, not the city or its history.
The state proposes to replace the 26-story building that has three levels of parking with a 13-story building at 703 E. Main St., the site of the former VEC headquarters, also part of the expanded banking historic district.
“The building is in bad shape and it’s good they got out of it,” Damico said of the former VEC offices.
The VEC had operated its headquarters in downtown Richmond for more than 50 years, but moved to Brookfield Place in the Brookfield office park off West Broad Street near Interstate 64 and Dickens Road in 2019.
The project to build a new office tower at Seventh and Main streets would cost about $283 million and could be completed by 2026.
The Monroe Building would have cost more to maintain than it’s worth, so the state wants to either sell it on the private market — it’s currently appraised at $28 million — or demolish it.
No one is rushing to save that building.
“I think there is no love for the Monroe Tower,” said Calder Loth, retired senior architectural historian at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
The potential demolition also would open opportunities for the state to transform properties on the eastern side of Capitol Hill that he said have been neglected.
“The whole backside of Capitol Hill has just been treated as a wasteland,” Loth said.
The Monroe Building, originally conceived as twin towers, commands a prominent position in the city skyline overlooking Interstate 95 and facing Church Hill.
“I think the property probably is more of interest than the building itself,” Damico said.
But, he added, “These are decisions made by the General Assembly and the [gubernatorial] administration at the time about what to do with state assets.”