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Must-See RVA! — First National Bank Building

A look into the history of Richmond places that are still part of our landscape.



AKA, Old First and Merchants National Bank Building, BB&T Bank Building
825-827 East Main Street
Built, 1912-1913
Architects, Alfred Charles Bossom, Charles W. Clinton
VDHR 127-0381

Another masterpiece by the King of Neoclassicism.

March 2019

The First National Bank Building is one of the finest examples of turn-of-the-century Neoclassical Revival Architecture in the city of Richmond. This outstanding commercial structure, completed in 1913, was also the city’s first high-rise tower. The building combines monumental scale and fine detailing with the technological daring inherent in early steel-frame, high-rise construction.

[RVCJ03] — original location of First National Bank, circa 1903

Established in April 1865, eight days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, and three weeks after Richmond’s disastrous evacuation fire, First National Bank was founded by respected financial leaders who wanted to pull the fallen city through the difficult period of Reconstruction. When the Confederacy fell at the close of the Civil War, the Federal Government revoked the charters of all banks whose loyalty to the Union might be suspect. Richmond continued without a banking establishment until a group of Richmonders met with northern banker Hamilton G. Fant and associates, and agreed to establish a bank in Richmond under Federal charter.

[RVCJ03] — National Bank of Virginia, intersection of Eleventh & Main Streets, circa 1903

First National Bank opened its office in the old Custom’s House on May 10, 1865, welcoming Robert E. Lee as one of its first customers. The bank soon merged with National Exchange Bank, moving in 1868 from its original one room office on Bank Street (now Governor Street) to a commercial structure at Tenth and Main Streets. Despite difficult and threatening circumstances the bank survived the panic of 1873 and prospered through the later financial crisis of the 1890s. By the turn of the century, First National had the highest total assets of all eighteen banks then in the city, providing needed capital for Richmond’s expanding industry and commerce.

(National Portrait Gallery) — Alfred Charles Bossom

In 1910 the Bank’s Board voted to build a new structure on Main Street to house its offices. Desirous of employing the latest in design and technology, the Board hired the firm of Clinton and Russell to fashion the Bank’s new headquarters. The architect for the project was Alfred Charles Bossom, a native of England who later designed the Vepco Building, and the Virginia Trust building, as well as other notable Richmond structures.

March 2019 — showing four bays of the Main Street elevation

The exterior of the First National Bank Building is divided into four bays on the Main Street elevation, and five bays on the Ninth Street side. The base of the building, the lowest four floors, is punctuated by fifty-foot-high fluted Corinthian pilasters at the corners and engaged columns in between. These engaged columns support a seventeen-and-one-haIf-foot entablature rich with classical ornament.

March 2019

Medallions and carvings in the frieze alternate with the fifth story windows. Rosettes decorate a cornice supported by dentils and modillions. The architrave on both north and east facades bears the carved inscription “FIRST NATIONAL BANK”.

March 2019

A lower ornamental architrave demarks the third floor level. The area between the pilasters and columns is infilled with windows, making this building a clear predecessor to the curtain wall structures which have dominated commercial high-rise architecture since the 1950s. The relative simplicity of the brick “shaft” or tower block section of the building contrasts markedly with its heavily decorated base and cornice.

(Rocket Werks RVA Postcards) — showing original cantilevered cornice

The top four floors of the building form a “capital”. Similar to the base, limestone pilasters on all sides mark the building’s structure and support an ornate entablature from which the cornice has been removed.

(First National Apartments) — showing bank lobby

The interior of the First National Bank Building has its richest decoration in the banking room and in the elevator lobby. Marble clad columns support low-springing arches which frame groin vaults once stenciled with a mosaic pattern. The walls of the two-story, twenty-five-foot high space, originally lined with pink Knoxville marble, now feature rather saccharine murals illustrating historic Virginia houses. Light floods the space from the windows in filling the area between the engaged columns on the east wall.

(First National Apartments) — showing lozenge-shaped opening to the vault

In the center of the banking room, a marble stair leads down to the vault room through a lozenge-shaped opening surrounded by a handsome, heavy, brass rail. Marble counters on the west side of the room, which mark the teller stations, are the only remaining original fixtures in the banking room.

(First National Apartments) — showing brass mailbox and bronze elevator doors

The elevator lobby was notable for its beautiful bronze and marble finishes. The ornately carved bronze elevator doors and handsome brass mail box are regrettably the only elements in this area which remain unaltered although much of the original fabric apparently remains under the later trim. The vault room below contains two hand-made circular vault doors made by the Diebold Company in Canton, Ohio. Reputedly hauled up Main Street Hill by mules, the vaults were installed early in the building’s construction. The vault doors, still in use, are unique examples; the only remaining two of their kind.

(VDHR) — 1982 nomination photo, showing parapet shorn of the cornice

Mosaics which ornamented the walls and ceilings of the banking room were removed or covered with plaster. In 1966 extensive deterioration forced the removal of the eleven-foot-deep cornice which cantilevered twenty stories above the street. (VDHR)

March 2019

Aside from all that, it has a beautiful clock at the corner of Ninth and Main.

In the Age of Analog, municipal and commercial buildings everywhere sported elaborate timepieces and everyone relied on them, both those with watches (to set them by) and those without. Then came the Age of Digital when displaying the time of day was an easy parlor trick for devices of all stripes. In one sense this was useful, but the constant awareness has made us more subservient to its passage, and indirectly, for less public ornamentation.

August 2015 — showing First & Merchants National Bank Building

First National eventually became First & Merchants, which became Sovran, then C&S Sovran, NationsBank, and finally Bank of America. When it became F&M, it moved down the street to a spiffy new plaza complex at Twelfth and Main. The old First National Building became BB&T for a while, but today it is First National Apartments.

(First National Bank Building is part of the Atlas RVA! Project)


  • [RVCJ03] Richmond, Virginia: The City on the James: The Book of Its Chamber of Commerce and Principal Business Interests. G. W. Engelhardt. 1903.


Must-See RVA! is a regular series
appearing on rocket werks – check it out!



Combining protean forces from the forbidden Zero Serum with the unbridled power of atomic fusion, to better probe the Wisdom of the Ancients and their Forgotten Culture.

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Suspension Bridge to Belle Isle Closed Today

The bridge should be completed by the weekend.



The suspension pedestrian bridge to Belle Isle is temporarily closed due to concrete falling from Lee Bridge.

The closure took place Wednesday after city officials received reports of concrete pieces being found on the pedestrian bridge.

“It was concluded that the concrete pieces fell from an open joint of the Lee Bridge. Consequently, the pedestrian bridge located directly under the open joint had to be closed in an effort to protect the public,” a release said.

While the engineers say there is no serious danger they’re putting in a scaffolding protection system along some stretches of the bridge. The installation is taking place today (Thursday) and is expected to be done Friday.

Dominion RiverRock is this weekend and temperatures are in expected in the upper 90’s so usage of the bridge and Belle Isle will be at a season-high.



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Virginia lawmakers dodge questions on whether budget might include new policy on skill games

“Let’s keep ’em guessing,” House Appropriations Chairman Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, said Tuesday when asked for a response to the claim the budget could include a revised policy on skill games, either to tighten the existing ban or to lift it.



By Graham Moomaw

Budget leaders in the Virginia General Assembly won’t say if they’re considering changing the state’s contested ban on slots-like skill machines through the budget, despite that possibility already convincing a judge to order a lengthy delay in a lawsuit seeking to overturn the ban.

Last month, lawyers challenging the ban as unconstitutional pointed to the legislature’s ongoing special session and unfinished budget to argue the case should be delayed until all sides know what the state’s official policy on skill games will be. But the General Assembly’s budget negotiators won’t even say whether skill-games are part of their discussions.

“Let’s keep ’em guessing,” House Appropriations Chairman Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, said Tuesday when asked for a response to the claim the budget could include a revised policy on skill games, either to tighten the existing ban or to lift it.

Knight insisted the budget will get done and said “fine-tuning” is underway.

“In negotiations, I don’t comment on anything,” Knight said. “That’s how I work a negotiation.”

Asked about potential skill games changes Tuesday after a meeting in Richmond, Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, one of the 14 legislators working on the state budget, deferred to Senate Finance Chairwoman Janet Howell, D-Fairfax. Howell did not attend Tuesday morning’s Senate Finance Committee meeting, and she did not respond to an emailed request for comment Monday. In an email, a Senate budget staffer said “budget negotiations are ongoing.”

As Virginia recently relaxed laws to allow more types of state-sanctioned gambling, skill games have become a perennial point of contention. Usually found in convenience stores, sports bars and truck stops, they function similarly to chance-based slot machines but involve a small element of skill that allows backers to argue they’re more akin to traditional arcade games. Most machines involve slots-like reels and spins, but players have to slightly adjust the squares up or down in order to create a winning row of symbols.

Proponents insist the games are legal and give small Virginia business owners a piece of an industry dominated by big casino interests. In 2019, the chief prosecutor in Charlottesville concluded that they amount to illegal gambling devices, and critics have accused the industry of exploiting loopholes to set up a lucrative gaming enterprise that rapidly grew with minimal regulatory oversight.

After a one-year period of regulation and taxation to raise money for a COVID-19 pandemic relief fund, the critics won out in the General Assembly, with a ban on the machines taking effect in July 2021. But a Southside business owner who filed a lawsuit with the assistance of Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, successfully won a court injunction late last year barring enforcement of that law until his legal challenge is resolved. After Stanley wrote a letter pointing to the special session and unfinished budget talks as a reason to delay a hearing scheduled for May 18, the judge overseeing the case postponed the hearing until Nov. 2. The order also prohibited the state from enforcing the ban against thousands of previously regulated skill machines until November. The order doesn’t apply to machines that weren’t fully legal before the ban took effect, a distinction sowing confusion for local officials trying to sort out what’s allowed and what’s not.

In recent social media posts, the plaintiff challenging the ban, truck stop owner and former NASCAR driver Hermie Sadler, said the delay was requested because “legislators are threatening to now try to ban or legislate skill games through the budget.”

“So we need to know what we are fighting against,” Sadler said in a message posted to Twitter last week in response to a Virginia Mercury article about the delay.

Skill-game supporters have claimed the ban was driven by other gambling interests who want to clear out smaller competitors to make more money for themselves. As the gambling turf wars continue in Richmond, some local governments are frustrated by the lack of clarity on whether the state is or isn’t banning the machines.

“It’s created chaos,” said Franklin City Manager Amanda Jarratt.

Jarratt said her city has been dealing with crime and other disturbances associated with the machines, but has gotten little help because there’s no regulatory agency in charge of them. Virginia ABC had temporary oversight of the machines starting in 2020, but that ended when the ban took effect last year and ABC no longer had legal responsibility over gaming machines in ABC-licensed businesses.

“It continuing to drag on over months is only making the situation worse and leaving localities in a difficult position,” she said, adding her city simply doesn’t have the staffing power to try to figure out which machines are operating legally and which are illegal. “You want to be fair to the business owners, but you also need to look out for the best interest of the locality as a whole.”

Jarratt said she’d like clearer direction on whether the state is going to allow the machines or not.

If a new skill-game provision is put into the state budget, it would still need to win approval from the full General Assembly. But with the clock ticking to pass a budget before the fiscal year ends June 30, it’s unclear how open party leaders would be to changes to whatever deal budget negotiators present as the final product of months of work.

Knight offered little clarity on whether skill games are even a live issue. He also seemed to caution against putting too much stock into what people say they’re hearing about the budget.

“I heard that we were going to do the budget today. I heard we were going to do it on the 24th. I heard we were going to do it on the 27th. I’ve heard June the first. I’ve heard a lot of things,” Knight said. “But as far as I know, the only people that know are maybe a few budget conferees. And we’re not talking. Because we’re working to get things right.”

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Robert Zullo for questions: [email protected] Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.



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Look Up Saturday for the 40 ACRES: Chimborazo Park Skywriting

The poetics of the skywriting serve as a reminder of that unfulfilled promise of reparations.



1708 Gallery is excited to announce the date of 40 ACRES: Chimborazo Park, a skywriting performance by Sandy Williams IV. For the performance, a skywriter will trace the dimensions of a 40-acre plot above Chimborazo Park to place a sharp focus on the Freedman community that existed in this area. The poetics of the skywriting serve as a reminder of that unfulfilled promise of reparations. It is a public acknowledgment that will be briefly visible for miles and a physical metaphor for the ways in which the legend of reparations, “40 Acres and a Mule”, still holds an invisible presence in our atmosphere. The visual presence of things might disappear, but the memory is kept alive in the stories that we remember and pass down. This performance is part of William’s upcoming exhibition with 1708 and their long-term work The 40 Acres Archive.

Sandy Williams IV’s skywriting performance 40 ACRES: Chimborazo Park will begin at 3:00 pm.

At the performance, visitors can expect a DJ set, light refreshments, and a brief presentation of the project by Williams and his collaborators.

Please RSVP. This event is free and open to the public.
This project is being supported by Reynolds Gallery, Oakwood Arts, where Sandy is an artist in residence through support from CultureWorks, Afrikana Film Festival, and Arts & Letters Creative Co.
Reserved rain dates to be confirmed the week of:
Friday, May 20, 2022 (5:00 PM – 7:00 PM)
Sunday, May 22, 2022 (2:00 PM –  4:00 PM)



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