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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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).
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.
Here are the other standouts from this city of the dead:
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.
(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).
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.
But 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):
(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.
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:
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?
- George Washington’s Mount Vernon: An American Celebration
- Poe, Some Bones, and a Cask of Amontillado
- Gettysburg 150th Anniversary Civil War Reenactment
- Apron Envy: George Washington’s Masonic National Memorial
- Constitution Day Celebration at James Madison’s Montpelier
- Old Town Alexandria: Walking the “Old & Historic District”