Old City Hall holds ‘hidden history’ in downtown Richmond

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Along one of the busiest corridors of Richmond, Old City Hall stands prominently on East Broad Street. It is a permanent part of Richmond’s past and present.

“A lot of what makes the City of Richmond what it is today, both good and bad, happened in that building,” says Matthew Maggy, founder of Richmond Tour Guys.

Maggy explains Old City Hall is one of his favorite historic spots because what you see is what the city almost did not get.

Plans for the elaborate building came to be after the first City Hall was torn down following a fatal gallery collapse in 1870 during what Maggy describes as a ‘municipal civil war.’

“This 160 by 140 by 190 foot tall building was to be built using all, almost all granite quarried from the James River,” says Maggy.

However, that was easier said then done. A rail had to be installed along Broad Street to bring in supplies.

Maggy also says former Governor Edmund Randolph’s house had to be demolished from the block, and the First Presbyterian Church had to be relocated piece by piece.

(Photo: Richmond Tour Guys)

Racial tensions between laborers also ensued, but finally work on the building finished in 1894. It was 13 years after the project was first proposed.

“The significance of the building is in the construction of it,” points out Maggy. “That is Richmond contractors, Richmond City Engineer, Richmond labor, both White and African-American, using Virginia materials. That’s a pretty important feat.”

Maggy adds that what happened on the inside shaped decades of struggles.

“A lot of the increasingly tightening Jim Crow policies in the City of Richmond happened in Old City Hall,” he says. “It’s kind of this, embodies a lot of the tumultuous issues in Richmond at the time as far as racial division, labor, and capital division.”

Old City Hall closed its doors in the 1970’s with the completion of the current City Hall across the street.

Old City Hall survived demolition plans and was designated a National Historic Landmark.

Today Maggy encourages everyone to see why.

“Most people have lived here for years, don’t even know how gorgeous it is inside,” he says. “And the beauty of it, I think, is worthy of a stop.”

Asa Snyder, who is recognized as a master of cast iron architecture, designed works inside the atrium.

Maggy explains the original budget for Old City Hall was $300,000, but it skyrocketed to $1.3 million while city officials worked out all the building and labor issues.

Old City Hall is included in the Richmond Tour Guys ‘Downtown Walking Tour.’ Follow this link for a calendar of all tours available.

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