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Richmond's African American Heritage
The Continuing legacy of Historic Preservation
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Virginia Union University
and Belgian Building

Virginia Union University

Virginia Union University
City of Richmond
Department of Community Development


Virginia Union University is a historical black college on a 65 acre campus in north Richmond.  The name of the university derives from the “union” of a number of smaller African American colleges over the years.  The historic core of the campus consists of seven buildings constructed between 1899 and 1901.  They are of local Richmond granite and are in a Richardsonian Romanesque style.  The ashlar stonework of the complex is of exceptionally good quality with the names of the buildings inscribed in the stonework.  Architect John H. Coxhead of Buffalo, New York designed the buildings. The layout of the campus follows the fashion of campus planning by post Civil War architects of land grant colleges.

The merger of Richmond and Washington D.C. Baptist Theological seminaries led to the organization of Virginia Union University in 1896.  This unification represented the culmination of efforts of individuals and organizations to provide higher education for freed blacks after the Civil War. Over time, several other African American institutions have merged with Virginia Union University.   Northern philanthropists funded the 1899 building campaign that constitutes the core of the campus, as they did for a number of African American institutions such as Tuskegee and Hampton.   The buildings’ names honor their respective donors.

Over the years, Virginia Union University has graduated a number of prominent black leaders.  These include Samuel Lee Gravel, the first African American admiral in the United States Navy; Henry L. Marsh, the first African American mayor of Richmond; and L. Douglas Wilder, the first African American governor in the United States.

The Belgian Building was originally built as part of the Belgian exposition center for the 1939 New York World's Fair then reconstructed in 1941 on the campus of Virginia Union University in Richmond. The building’s architects, Victor Bourgeois and Leo Stijnen, worked under the direction of Professor Henry van der Velde, one of the most important architects of the 20th century and a pioneer of the modernist movement. The Belgian government planned to reassemble the building as a university library back in Belgium once the fair was over. Instead, because of the risk of shipping it in the midst of World War II while Belgium was under Nazi occupation, the Belgian government donated the building to Virginia Union University, a prominent African American institution. The original architects directed its reconstruction at VUU, where it was dubbed the Belgian Friendship Building.

Belgian building Congo Relief

Belgian Building Congo Relief
City of Richmond
Department of Community Development

The building, with its clean lines and geometrical patterns characteristic of the modernist movement, is an important example of the International style. Erected on a campus with many older buildings of Virginia granite, this Modernist two-story building with its 160 ft. high tower became one of the most defining architectural features of the VUU campus. The exterior of the building is faced with red tiles above a black slate-faced water table. The choice of materials is symbolic of Belgian unity. It features an impressive sandstone sculptural relief of the Belgian Congo Occupation.

Historic Belgian Building

Belgian Building Historic Postcard
Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries

The building housed the university’s library, the William J. Clark Library, from post-World War II until 1997. Its bell tower is named Vann Tower for Robert L. Vann, an alumnus and founder of the Pittsburgh Courier. In 2004, Dianne Watkins and her brother, Alan Nelson, "stumbled on history" that had not been recorded before. The carillon from the Belgian Friendship Buildings rings from Hoover Tower of Stanford University. This new history has emerged and is making its way internationally. The Belgian Building is attached by a connecting wing to Barco-Stevens Hall, which originally was part of the building but later detached. The name given the gymnasium/auditorium honors the memory of VUU Vice President John W. Barco and Professor Wesley A. Stevens.

In recent years, the building has undergone a multi-million dollar renovation and now houses the fine arts center and theater for the university. The Richmond architectural firm SMBW oversaw the renovation work.



Plan your visit
Virginia Union University is in the near north side of Richmond in between Chamberlayne Avenue on the north and Broad Street on the south. The Belgian Building is located at 1500 N. Lombardy St. at the intersection of Lombardy and Brooke Rd., on the Virginia Union University campus. The building currently holds the university’s fine arts center and is open to the public. Student-led campus tours depart from the Office of Admissions. For more information, call 804-257-5600 or visit the university's website.
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