Tobacco and Trolleys: Industry and Transportation
Antebellum Architecture
Richmond's African American Heritage
The Continuing legacy of Historic Preservation
Discover Our Heritage Travel Itinerary

Antebellum Architecture in Richmond

Richmond has a rich collection of historic places associated with the pre-Civil War period of its history.  Many are listed in the National Register of Historic Places and highlighted in this travel itinerary.

William Byrd II established Richmond in 1733, and in 1768, his son William Byrd III founded the town of Rocky Ridge, which is the location of the Manchester historic districts of present-day Richmond. During the colonial period, both settlements were modest trading outposts with only a few hundred people between them.  Their livelihood revolved around the buying and selling of hogsheads of tobacco.  A smattering of modest houses, small tobacco merchants’ stores, and large public tobacco warehouses characterized both communities. 

The original plans of Richmond and Rocky Ridge are evident in the Shockoe Valley and Tobacco Row and the Manchester Residential and Commercial Historic Districts.  Only a few buildings from the colonial era survive in Richmond.  These include the 18th century portion of the Henrico Parrish's St. John’s Episcopal Church from 1742 and the Old Stone House c. 1740.  Another rare colonial-era survivor is the Archibald Freeland House of 1771, the oldest house in Manchester Residential and Commercial Historic District.

State Capitol

Virginia State Capitol
City of Richmond Department
of Community Development

In 1779, the Commonwealth of Virginia decided to move the state capital to Richmond because of Richmond’s relatively central and presumably more defensible position.  In 1780, Governor Thomas Jefferson led the actual relocation of Virginia’s government from Williamsburg to Richmond.  The presumed defensibility of Richmond proved to be an illusion when the British captured the new Virginia capital in 1781.  In spite of the 1781 military setback, moving Virginia’s government precipitated the emergence of Richmond as the “Metropolis of Virginia” and one of the most important cities in the early United States.  The population increased from a few hundred people in 1782 to nearly 6,000 inhabitants by 1800.  

In 1780, the Commonwealth of Virginia laid out a substantial geographic expansion of the city to accommodate the new state governmental functions and the expected increase in population.  Today, this expansion encompasses the section of downtown Richmond bounded by Foushee and Clay Streets to the west and north, the James River to the south, and Interstate 95 to the east. This area contains a number of districts and individual properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

The Commonwealth of Virginia began construction of the Virginia State Capitol in 1785.   Thomas Jefferson and Charles-Louis Clerisseau designed this National Historic Landmark, one of the first temple-form buildings in the United States.  The capitol is atop one of the highest points in Richmond.  Situated on a sort of acropolis, it visually dominated the young city.  Over the course of time, the location of the capitol on Shockoe Hill shifted the direction of Richmond’s growth westward from the original portion of Richmond in Shockoe Valley.

Once the state government moved to the city, its leaders looked to transportation and industry to make Richmond the economic as well as the political capital of Virginia. The essay Tobacco and Trolleys: Industry and Transportation in Richmond explores this theme.  Richmond’s transportation network and industrial development turned the city into one of the most important economic centers in the South.

In the early decades of the 19th century, Richmond’s population grew steadily.  By 1860, the population reached 37,968 making Richmond by far the largest city in Virginia and one of the biggest in the South.  Richmond’s post-colonial antebellum architectural legacy reflects this steady growth and development.

Few public buildings remain from the period.  A noteworthy exception is Mason’s Hall from 1788, a wood- frame Palladian building in the Shockoe Valley and Tobacco Row Historic District.  Built to house Richmond’s Masonic lodges, it is one of oldest continually used Masonic lodges in the world.  Another is the Bell Tower on Capitol Square that Levi Swan designed and built in 1824 to warn residents of the city in case of fire or emergency.

Richmond still has a wealth of historic churches from this time, many of which nationally important architects designed.  Several African American congregations built churches described in the thematic essay Richmond’s African American Heritage.  One of the oldest surviving churches is Monumental Church, a National Historic Landmark, from 1814.  Designed by distinguished architect Robert Mills, this Neoclassical building is his only surviving circular church in the United States.  It commemorates the disastrous 1811 theater fire with a monument and variety of funerary symbols.  St. Peter’s Church of 1839 is an important transitional building to the fully developed Greek Revival style.  The mature Greek Revival style in Richmond is reflected in such significant temple-form churches as the First African Baptist Church of 1841 by Thomas U. Walter, St. Paul’s Church of 1841 by Thomas Stewart, and Leigh Street Baptist Church from 1854 by Samuel Sloan.

Bolling Haxall House

Bolling Haxall House
Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries


The late antebellum period saw the introduction of picturesque architecture in both churches and public buildings.   Gothic Revival churches include the Second Presbyterian Church of 1845 by Minard LaFevre and St. Patrick’s Catholic Church of 1859 in the St. John’s Church Historic District.  Constructed in 1845 to house the Medical College of Virginia, the Egyptian Building is one of the finest examples of Egyptian Revival architecture in the United States.  Philadelphia architect Thomas Stewart designed this memorable building.

During this time, styles of residences evolved significantly.  Early in the period, most Richmond homes were vernacular detached houses or cottages of wood, such as the Tucker Cottage of 1802 in Jackson Ward Historic District, and the Morris Cottages of 1835 in St. John’s Church Historic District.  Many of the early residences were on large lots with outbuildings, including the Adam Craig House of 1785 in the Shockoe Valley and Tobacco Row Historic District.  The Craig House is a large frame house on an original half-acre lot, with a historic outbuilding.  Good examples of vernacular architecture from later in the antebellum period are in several National Register historic districts including Union Hill, St. John’s Church, Jackson Ward, and Oregon Hill.

In the more densely built sections of Richmond, attached housing became the norm as in the early “double” houses  in the 1800 block of East Grace Street in the Shockoe Valley and Tobacco Row Historic District.  One of the earliest attached rows is Carrington Row c. 1810 in the St. John’s Church Historic District.  Greek Revival rows with columned entrance porches became popular after 1840.  Linden Row of 1845 is among the most magnificent Greek Revival rows.  Elmtree Row in the Shockoe Valley and Tobacco Row Historic District is an excellent more modest Greek Revival row dating from about 1854.

Throughout the antebellum period, visitors to Richmond commented on the large detached mansions, particularly on the hills of the city.  Important surviving Neoclassical mansions include the Hancock-Wirt-Caskie House of 1808 and the Wickham-Valentine House that Alexander Parris designed in 1811.  Another important Parris-designed building is the Virginia Governor’s Mansion of 1814, the oldest continually used executive building in the United States.   Richmond still has some Greek Revival mansions from this period such as the Ellen Glasgow House of 1841 and the 1844 Barret House.  In the 1850s, the Italianate became the most important style in Richmond.  The Pace-King House in the Shockoe Valley and Tobacco Row District and the Bolling Haxall House, both from 1858, illustrate this style. The White House of the Confederacy, built in 1818, represents one of the finer Federal style homes in the city.

The city still has several antebellum designed landscapes of note.  Capitol Square, the setting for the Virginia State Capitol, Governor’s Mansion, and Bell Tower, retains elements from an 1816 formal plan that Maximillian Godefroy designed and an 1850 naturalistic plan by John Notman of Philadelphia.  Hollywood Cemetery of 1847, another Notman design, is one of the finest “rural” cemeteries in the country, a dramatic landscape of hills and dales overlooking the James River.

Two important monuments from 1858, the Virginia Washington Monument on Capitol Square and the James Monroe Tomb in Hollywood Cemetery, are both National Historic Landmarks.   In 1851, the City of Richmond established a system of public squares, acquiring land for three squares, two of which are listed on the National Register.  Monroe Park is the centerpiece of the Monroe Park Historic District, and Libby Hill Park is in the St. John’s Church Historic District.  In 1856, the city laid out Oakwood Cemetery, a publicly owned rural cemetery in the Oakwood-Chimborazo Historic District.

In addition are a considerable number of antebellum buildings in the Court End section of Richmond and both of the Franklin Street Historic Districts.  All of these buildings together are an outstanding architectural collection that represents Richmond’s importance before the Civil War.

Richmond’s stature as a financial, commercial, and population center was a deciding factor in its selection as the capital of the Confederacy.  The Civil War had a dramatic impact when the evacuation fire of 1865 destroyed a substantial portion of Richmond.  The city struggled to rebuild afterward, and while it remained a leading southern city, Richmond would never regain the national prominence it obtained during the antebellum period.