- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 1, 2006

RICHMOND — One-hundred feet of polished terrazzo floor and a bronze bust of Patrick Henry separate the House of Delegates and the Senate in the building that substitutes for the 200-year-old state Capitol Thomas Jefferson designed.

When the General Assembly convenes Jan. 11, the oak-paneled, high-ceilinged lobby between the two legislative chambers will become chaotic, teeming with harried legislators and the hundreds of lobbyists, constituents and reporters who clamor after them.

Toss in the governor, his staff, his Cabinet, other top advisers and their lieutenants, as well as the clerks of the House and the Senate and the scores of workers they oversee, and you have the Patrick Henry Building.

This boxy, gray art deco structure that housed the State Library from 1939 to 1997 will be a provisional Capitol while the real one 150 yards away is closed for renovations.

Prepare for confusion, at least in the beginning, said George Bishop, the deputy House clerk for administrative and support services.

For two years, the massive Capitol improvement project has consumed him, sweating details as momentous as the inauguration of the 70th governor in Williamsburg Jan. 14 and as mundane as ensuring phones are in the right places.

“The biggest challenge is just getting everybody used to the new environment,” Mr. Bishop said. “Once they’re in this building a couple of weeks, things should go smoothly.”

Perhaps. But it will never feel like the Capitol, said Delegate Leo C. Wardrup, Virginia Beach Republican, a legislator for 14 years and the House’s self-appointed “curmudgeon” for most of that time.

The starkest difference will be access to House and Senate floor sessions, said Senate Clerk Susan Clark Schaar.

Visitors will have to watch floor sessions on television screens in committee rooms, either in the Patrick Henry Building or in the larger General Assembly Building a block to the west down Broad Street.

The interim House and Senate chambers were once the State Library’s cavernous reading rooms — one each, similarly sized, on the east and west corners of the building.

Now, one side is set up with table space and seats for 100 delegates, and the other with individual desks for 40 senators. A two-tier oaken dais rises front and center in each chamber.

Absent, however, are the galleries — the balcony-level seats — from which the public can watch representative democracy in person in the Capitol.

Gone also are the Capitol’s quiet corners, its cubbyholes, its ornate marble stairwells where a lobbyist or reporter could huddle with a lawmaker in relative privacy.

In its place is the open, cold expanse of foyer where even the smallest sounds reverberate.

Delegates this year will use classroom-style tables instead of antique wooden desks, which have been crated away for custom refinishing.

There’s little room in the House chamber for anything other than the long, narrow tables, meaning cramped quarters when the House and Senate meet there in tandem twice this month.

Gov. Mark Warner gives his final State of the Commonwealth address to a joint session three days before he leaves office; his successor, Timothy M. Kaine, delivers his first two days after he’s sworn in.

“That’s going to be a challenge. Our top priority is to seat the 40 senators, and then we’ll squeeze in the Cabinet and the Supreme Court,” Mr. Bishop said.

Senators, by contrast, will find all 40 of their desks in place in the new space with ample room to spare. Their desks will be refinished after the 2006 session.

Perhaps most galling to delegates and senators is the fact that, for the first time, they are tenants and their rival for power, the governor, is the landlord. The Patrick Henry Building belongs to the Executive Branch, which will remain there and reclaim the legislature’s space when the General Assembly returns to its turf, the Capitol, in 2007.

“We know that these temporary quarters are just that — temporary,” Mr. Wardrup said.

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