- The Washington Times - Friday, November 26, 2004

RICHMOND — In May, tourists and downtown workers on lunch breaks spread blankets to picnic or just recline on the majestic, grassy slope of the state Capitol’s south lawn — a scene as bright and idyllic as a Renoir landscape.

Today, the grass (in fact, most of the slope itself) is gone, gouged out by massive dozers and loaders, leaving a deep gash in the soil where an underground Capitol extension soon will take form.

Chain-link fencing 7 feet tall surrounds much of Capitol Square, an area off-limits to all except workers operating machines that dig, move steel girders and reek of diesel fuel.

Scaffolding already cloaks most of the building’s western Senate wing, where tradesmen peel and chip away cream-colored stucco that conceals thick masonry walls.

It’s the short-term price for saving a deteriorating 200-year-old structure integral to Virginia’s heritage and the United States’ history. The foundation-to-roof renovation is part of a $131 million makeover for Capital Square.

The central structure was designed by Thomas Jefferson, who modeled it after La Maison Carree, a Roman temple in Nimes, France. The General Assembly first met in the Capitol in 1788; the six-columned South Portico was finished two years later.

It housed the state legislature and the Congress of the slaveholding Confederacy from 1861 until 1865, but 125 years later a grandson of slaves was inaugurated there as the nation’s first (and still its only) elected black governor, L. Douglas Wilder.

The modern House of Delegates and Senate wings were finished in 1906.

By April, the Capitol will close. The General Assembly, the governor, their support staffs and Chicken’s Snack Bar, the Capitol cafe, will move across the north lawn into the Old State Library.

Completed in 1939 as part of the federal National Recovery Act, the art deco library is being reconfigured as a stand-in Capitol for the 2006 session.

The legislature is scheduled to return to a freshly refurbished Capitol just in time for its 2007 session. Visitors will enter through the new extension, deep beneath the restored, grassy hillside.

The governor’s office, however, stays in the old library, which is being refitted as a 250,000-square-foot executive offices building. That will unite the governor under the same roof with his staff, top advisers and Cabinet while he retains a ceremonial Capitol office.

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