My Richmond Five

I’ve been meaning to visit Richmond for years, and this was finally the year to do it. Here are the five favorites from that sunlit weekend.

(1) The Virginia State Capitol. Designed by — who else, with that neoclassical look? — Thomas Jefferson, the Capitol is impressive when it comes into view: an immaculate Roman temple atop a round hill.  The first public building of this style in the New World, it has inspired other U.S. Capitols and court houses for over two centuries. Hard at work since 1788, this is the oldest legislature continuously operating in the Western Hemisphere.

Virginia Capitol in Richmond, USA

You can explore the Capitol on your own, but I recommend an hour-long guided tour, offered on the hour 9 am to 4 pm Monday through Saturday and 1 pm to 4 pm on Sunday. Inside, you practically trip over impressive artifacts of state and national significance, though I was shocked not to hear a word about slavery through our entire tour — and that includes a riveting account of the Civil War. This becomes a theme in Richmond.

Thomas Jefferson with plans for Virginia Capitol

Thomas Jefferson, with the plans for the Capitol

Virginia Capitol - Pocahontas and John Smith

Pocahontas and her husband, John Rolfe, a Jamestown farmer credited with being the first successful commercial grower of tobacco, soon Virginia’s prime export crop

An unexpectedly moving moment awaited in the Rotunda. Jefferson wanted a statue of George Washington to take pride of place there. The sculptor engaged for the task, Jean-Antoine Houdon, traveled from France to Mount Vernon, Washington’s Virginia plantation, to meet and measure his subject (a terra cotta bust from that visit is still at Mount Vernon). This is a life-sized statue of the first president, the only piece he ever posed for. Marquis de Lafayette, Virginia’s favorite Frenchman, said the statue was “a fac-similie of Washington’s person.” George was tall.

Stature of George Washington at Virginia Capitol

Glove in George Washington's statue at Virginia Capitol

Washington’s marble gloved hand on his cane was remarkably life-like and strangely moving — this was not a regal statue of Zeus.

Surrounding Washington are busts of seven other Virginia-born U.S. Presidents and de Lafayette himself, voted “a citizen of Virginia” in 1785 for his heroics during the American Revolution. De Lafayette’s bust was also done from life by Houdon, received from France in 1789. I first met the Marquis in Mount Vernon, thanks to a key and a painting he sent to Washington, still carefully displayed at the presidential mansion. The key once opened the Bastille, and the the painting depicted de Lafayette ordering the destruction of that political prison during the French Revolution. Theirs was a historic relationship.

Lafayette bust at Virginia Capitol

There are many things to see apart from the Rotunda. Here are the three objects that stood out to me: a plaster model, a bronze statue, and a daunting staircase.

Virginia Capitol was different colors through the centuries

The Capitol did not start with its present look. Here are the colors it went through before settling on its current shade of brilliant white. This is the original plaster model that arrived in Richmond in 1786 (Jefferson  thought it “absolutely necessary for the guide of workmen not very expert in their art”), painted afterwards with each new color scheme, colors introduced from left to right.

General Lee at Virginia Capitol

A larger-than-life bronze Robert E. Lee, standing where he stood on April 23, 1861, when Lee accepted command of the armed forces of Virginia from Governor John Letcher.

Staircase at the Virginia State Capitol

Capitol stairs. Queen Elizabeth II braved these when she visited in 2007, the first British monarch to address the Virginia Assembly. Her visit marked the 400th anniversary of Britain’s first permanent settlement in the Americas, Virginia’s Jamestown.

The Capitol grounds are stunning. We did not give them as much attention as they deserve but did relax by one of the statues: Edgar Allan Poe, one of several Poe-related pilgrimages we took in the city.

Edgar Allan Poe statue in profile, Virginia Capitol, Richmond

(2) Hollywood Cemetery. Every grand city has a celebrity resting place. The Père Lachaise of Richmond is the Hollywood Cemetery, named for the abundance of holly trees on the property. In business since 1849, this place is a must-see, a verdant, meditative stroll through the city’s history.
Entrance to Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA

The cemetery houses two U.S. Presidents (Monroe, Tyler), the Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and a “Who Is Who” of Richmond since 1865 (records before that are hazy, burned when fleeing Confederates set fire to the city).

Map of Virginia's Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond

You have several options for how to navigate this place; we simply drove through. A dramatic structure commands your attention as you start your tour: The monument to the Confederate dead. Eighteen thousand Confederate soldiers are buried at the cemetery, including thousands brought from the Battle of Gettysburg.

Richmond Hollywood Cemetery, Monument to Confederate Dead

Here are the other standouts from this city of the dead:

Iron dog statue by a grave at Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia

A crowd favorite, this iron dog guards the grave of a young girl who died in 1862. Several local legends describe the dog’s arrival to this spot. I like the least sentimental version: The family was saving its statuary from being melted down for the war effort. A better story, then, is why the dog is still here — now that’s a mystery.

A little girl's grave with Iron Dog, Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond

Visitors leave trinkets for the little girl, as her dog keeps watch.

The first grave at Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery

Another child’s grave marks the first burial at the Hollywood Cemetery:  Frederick William Emrich.

Entrance to Presidents Circle, Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA

In the 1850s, there was a brief push to bring graves of all Virginia-born U.S. Presidents to Richmond. Only Monroe and Tyler got here in the end.

"Bird cage" tomb of James Monroe, Richmond, Virginia

The ornate tomb of James Monroe, the fifth U.S. President, was promptly dubbed “the Birdcage” by Richmondians.

Wren singing in Monroe's tomb, Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia

On our visit, a Carolina wren made a nest in the Birdcage, signing its heart out.

Palmer Chapel Mausoleum, Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia

The serene Palmer Chapel Mausoleum, a recent addition to burial options at the Hollywood Cemetery.

Overflowing James River, view from Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia

The Palmer Chapel Masoleum has the cemetery’s best views of the James River, roaring below.

Lewis Ginter's resting place, Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond

Lewis Ginter, a wealthy Richmond businessman and philanthropist, who shaped the city’s landscape in the second half of the 19th century, also rests at Hollywood in a gorgeous mausoleum of his own, marked with three Tiffany stained-glass windows.

The cemetery is beautiful even beyond these famous landmarks. We stopped the car often and strolled from one masonic symbol and weeping angel to the next. Do linger here.

Hollywood Cemetery masonic headstone, Richmond, VA

Angel grave sculpture, Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA

Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA

Grave statue of a woman, Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA

Interior garden of Richmond's Poe Museum(3) The Museum of Edgar Allan Poe.  A fitting, if more offbeat follow-up to the serenity of the Hollywood Cemetery is Richmond’s Poe Museum. Housed in four neighboring buildings, the museum boasts the largest collection of Poe artifacts and memorabilia in the world. Poe spent 13 of his 40 years in Richmond, longer than anywhere else — not in any of the houses the museum occupies, but nearby (Poe’s actual Richmond dwellings were lost). The most impressive of the museum’s buildings is the Old Stone House, which proclaims itself to be “the oldest house still standing in Richmond.”

A curious connection to my time at the Virginia Capitol: This house originally belonged to the Ege family, with Revolution-time ties to Marquis de Lafayette. The Marquis visited this home during his triumphant tour of the United States in 1824 – 1825. On that visit, young Poe was part of the junior color guard that accompanied de Lafayette through the city. Poe would have waited outside the house while the illustrious Frenchman visited with the Eges (it is unknown if Poe and de Lafayette ever spoke, but the Marquis was also acquainted with Poe’s maternal grandfather, David Poe, whose grave de Lafayette asked to visit in Baltimore’s Westminster Burying Ground, the place where Edgar himself would be later buried, twice).

The Old Stone House

Oldest house in Richmond plaque, Poe Museum, Richmond, VA

Photography is not permitted inside the museum, and it’s a pity. The  collection is eclectic, and it’s easy to overlook some of its treasures. My three favorites were Poe’s boyhood bed, his silk embroidered vest (look closer for the signs of wear and tear), and lock of Poe’s hair, clipped off his corpse in Baltimore by his friend, magazine editor Joseph Evans Snodgrass. Though New York City, Boston, and Baltimore may claim Poe, he himself said in 1841: “I am a Virginian… for I have resided all my life, until within the last few years, in Richmond.”

(4) The Burying Ground at Old St. John’s Church. The centerpiece of early Richmond, the St. John Church was built in 1741. We came here for a Poe connection: His mother, actress Elizabeth Arnold Poe, is buried here.

Grave stone of Poe's mother, St. John Churc, Richmond

The historic St. John's Church, Richmond, Virginia

Signs to historic St. John's Church, Richmond, VirginiaBut there is more history than this at St. John’s. In March 1775, as the pre-Revolutionary zeal was reaching its height, over 100 delegates of the Second Virginia Convention met here, the only space large enough in Richmond, then a town of 600 inhabitants, to hold them. Present were the tongue (Patrick Henry), the pen (Thomas Jefferson), and the sword (George Washington) of the American Revolution. Three days of that meeting are now condensed into an hour-long reenactment, culminating in Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech — a bit rich coming from a slave owner. Performances occur each Sunday between Memorial and Labor Day weekends (11 am and 1:15 pm, free; first come, first served), with the Anniversary Reenactment held on the Sunday in March closest to March 23, the date of Henry’s speech.

The church does fill up for the event, so we were glad to have bought $5 tickets in advance. Here are glimpses of the key players (photography is not permitted during the actual reenactment, but do stick around afterwards):

Reenactors at St. John's Church, Richmond, VA

Not all are plum roles. There are reenactors for the audience.

Reenactor at St. John's Church, Richmond, Virginia

Patrick Henry, relaxing after all the drama

Reenactor of Thomas Jefferson at St. John's Church, Richmond, Virginia

Jefferson, conversing with the ladies

Lee, St. John's Church, Richmond, Virginia

Lee and Jefferson

Reenactors of Second Virginia Convention, St. John's Church, Richmond, Virginia

(5) Byrd Theatre, Carytown. Last, but not least, is the 1928 movie theater and its organ. They brought us to Carytown, a half-mile kaleidoscope of restaurants, cafes, and artsy stores. Byrd Theatre is the grand matron of Carytown, named after William Byrd II, Richmond’s founder (he donated the land and timber for St. John’s Church). Make sure you look around — the place is lavishly decorated, meant to invoke the feel of grand European opera houses. The giant chandelier overhead counts over 5,000 crystals, brought to life by 500 red, blue, green, and amber lights. On our visit, we saw The Wizard of Oz (1939), so green was the hue of the day.

crystal chandelier in Byrd Theatre, Richmond, Virginia

Every Saturday night, there are two organ performances, the overtures to the 7:15 and 9:30 movies. Byrd’s Mighty Wurlitzer Organ is a “one-man orchestra,” built to accompany silent films, installed here in case that sound thing was just a fad. I loved the performance. Just LOOK AT THIS:

Bob Gulledge playing The Mighty Wurlitzer Organ, Byrd Theatre, Richmond, Virginia

Bob Gulledge playing The Mighty Wurlitzer Organ

Byrd Theatre, Richmond, Virginia

An impressive affair. Here’s a recording of what it all sounds like, a great fun!

All in all, Richmond was fun — not the most introspective of cities, granted. We owe it another visit, when things are in bloom at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, perhaps. But these, so far, are my “Richmond five.” What do you think?

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4 thoughts on “My Richmond Five

  1. Great post! I visited Richmond a decade ago and saw some of these landmarks. I can still remember the history and peacefulness of Hollywood Cemetery. Thanks for the bit about Poe; I didn’t know he spent *that* much time in Virginia, although as a lifelong Marylander and recent literature student, I’ll still fight any Virginian over which state gets to claim him more. 😉

    • Thank you! Well, truth be told, Poe said that bit about being a Virginian before he spent ALL that time in Baltimore, so, yes, you may have a point. 🙂 I am enjoying your blog. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Pingback: Holding Hands with Gregory Peck: Grauman’s Chinese Theatre | Transplanted Tatar

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