Thrilled to Be in Jefferson's Shadow
As Va. Capitol Reopens, Architect Recalls an Inspiring, Intimidating Project

By Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 1, 2007

When George C. Skarmeas, a Greek immigrant who is one of America's leading historic preservation architects, was asked why he wanted to take on the job of renovating the Virginia Capitol, he was taken aback.

"Are you pulling my leg?" he asked.

Assured that his leg was not being tugged, Skarmeas said renovating Thomas Jefferson's "Temple on the Hill" in Richmond has been the high point of his 27-year professional life.

"If you think about it, it is possibly one of the most significant buildings in America," said Skarmeas, 52, who believes that Jefferson was the nation's most important architect. "It was designed by Jefferson. . . . He is the person who wrote the Declaration of Independence . . . and was president. I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to work on something designed by a genius like Jefferson. When a commission like this appears on the radar screen, you say, 'My God, this is probably the job of a lifetime.' I had absolutely no hesitation."

After three years and $104.5 million, the renovated and expanded Capitol will be officially opened today by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and a host of other dignitaries. The completion of the project, which includes renovations inside and outside the building, didn't come a minute too soon. The nation's second-oldest working statehouse will host a visit by Queen Elizabeth II of England on Thursday.

"It will be a high honor and truly special moment in our commonwealth's long and storied history to have the queen of England address the General Assembly, which traces it roots to the House of Burgesses in Jamestown," House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said. "Her majesty's presence in of America's oldest, finest and newly renovated state Capitol is a wonderful way to commemorate Virginia's 400th anniversary year."

Jefferson's inspiration for the design of the Capitol came from the Maison Caree, a 1st-century Roman temple in Nimes, France. Skarmeas, director of historic preservation for Hillier Architecture of Philadelphia, said working on a building designed by Jefferson in 1785 was daunting.

"Very intimidating," he said. "I mean, you've got to realize that you are touching a building that was designed by a genius. So, who am I, you know, to have the audacity to speak to, to question, that genius? The idea is that it is his building, not mine. The importance of what we do is that we have to figure out ways of making our interventions so we don't leave our signature, don't leave our fingerprints, so to speak."

The project, which began in April 2004, included restoring the original Temple on the Hill and the east and west wings, which were added in 1904-1906, the last time there was a major renovation. Workers also built a 27,000-square-foot addition, which was placed under the south lawn to preserve the sight lines of Jefferson's creation. The expansion includes a visitors center.

Extensive landscaping was done around the complex, and stairs were added to the south lawn. Stairs were included in Jefferson's original concept but never built, so in a sense Skarmeas has helped realize Jefferson's vision.

New mechanical and electrical systems, a roof, elevators, stairwells and legislative meeting space were updated or added.

Renovating a historic landmark is not like remodeling a rambler. Steps had to be taken to preserve and protect craftsmanship and materials that date back to the original construction.

At the start, Skarmeas was told that there was little hope of discovering any original materials.

"I was floored by this," he said. "We are in Virginia. We don't throw things away. We were pleasantly surprised. We found there is a tremendous amount of 18th-century fabric still in place, and we were able to discover it and make sure it was preserved."

Some discoveries were made after layers of paint or plaster were painstakingly removed from walls or ceilings. Among the 18th-century materials discovered was the railing on the second floor of the rotunda. Workers also found nails from the original construction.

Skarmeas said the exhilaration of making such a discovery lasted about 10 seconds. "You know why? Because you realize that 'now I have to do something very responsible about this,' " he said. "Yes, you get very excited at first, and then you realize the tremendous responsibility you have about treating it right."

Working on a Jefferson building is unusual, in part, because, as Skarmeas pointed out, the former president and Virginia governor designed only four projects -- Monticello, the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, the Poplar Forest plantation near Lynchburg and the Capitol.

"What are the chances of working on one of the four?" Skarmeas asked.

With the opening today, Skarmeas said his work is not complete. He is writing a book about the project to preserve a record of the work for posterity, including the architect who might be chosen a century from now for the next renovation.

Although he cannot know what Jefferson would have thought of his work, he imagines what the great man might say if he were able.

"If Jefferson walked into the building, I would want him to say: 'You took care of my building, George. Thank you,' " Skarmeas said.

Senior producer Laura Cochran of washingtonpost.com contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company