RVA Legends — Life of Virginia Building

RVA Legends — Life of Virginia Building

A look into the history of Richmond places and people that have disappeared from our landscape.

[RVCJ03] — original building on Broad Street, circa 1903 — note Old City Hall visible at left
[RVCJ03] — original building on Broad Street, circa 1903 — note Old City Hall visible at left

AKA, General Assembly Building
911-915 East Broad Street

Original

  • Built, before 1877
  • Demolished, probably 1923

2nd Building

  • Built, 1912
  • Expanded, 1923, 1955, 1964
  • Demolished, 2018
  • Architects, Clinton & Russell (1912, 1923), Marcellus Wright Associates (1964)

So if you’ve been wondering about that hole in the ground with the propped-up wall at Ninth and Broad, here’s the juice.

Richmond has four local insurance companies—three fire and one life. The three fire companies are the Mutual Assurance Society, the Virginia Fire and Marine Insurance Company, and the Virginia State Insurance Company. The life company is the Life Insurance Company of Virginia.

[RVCJ03] — general office interior view, circa 1903
[RVCJ03] — general office interior view, circa 1903

The total capital, surplus and reserve of the two joint stock fire companies January 1, 1892, was $996,000. The Mutual, being what its name implies, makes no showing of capital. The total assets of the three fire companies then was $1,932,078. Their total receipts in 1891 were $580,000.

The Life Insurance Company of Virginia had over $400,000 in receipts in 1891. Its capital stock is $100,000.

(Library of Congress) — Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Richmond (1905) — Plate 7 — showing the original location prior to the 2nd building
(Library of Congress) — Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Richmond (1905) — Plate 7 — showing the original location prior to the 2nd building

There are some thirty agencies for insurance, local and State, at Richmond. Nearly every home and foreign company of any note doing business is represented here. The Liverpool and London and Globe Insurance Company has one of its five American branches here, and from the nature of its organization, with directors resident here, may be considered practically a local company.

July 2019 — 911-915 East Broad Street today — this is what they call foreshadowing
July 2019 — 911-915 East Broad Street today — this is what they call foreshadowing

The grand total of insurance business here is, by recent reports, $1,318,812 annually: $545,666 fire, $701,813 life, and $71,333 accident. The total insurance upon the property endangered by fire here in 1891 was $809,647; the insurance loss was $196,190. The insurance men of the city are organized as a Board of Underwriters, George D. Pleasants, president; Ro. E. Richardson, secretary.

The Life Insurance Company of Virginia is an old company and a solid one. On December 31st, 1892, its annual statement was rendered. That statement shows it to have $100,000 capital stock, and a surplus as to policy-holders of $156,962.52.

(Rocket Werks RVA Postcards) — 2nd building, constructed in 1906
(Rocket Werks RVA Postcards) — 2nd building, constructed in 1906

At the same time its assets were $819,029.86, and the total amount of its insurance in force, $9,832,327.00, an increase in assets, over the year preceding, of $140,286.27 and in the matter of insurance in force of something over $1,552,398.00. It has paid to its policy-holders, since its organization, $1,226,320.39 and during the last six years its premium income has increased nearly five-fold. Its total income, last year was $507,752.35. It is a company that pays its death claims immediately upon presentation and approval of the proofs of death.

[RVCJ03] — John G. Walker, President & T. William Pemberton, 1st Vice President, circa 1903
[RVCJ03] — John G. Walker, President & T. William Pemberton, 1st Vice President, circa 1903

Its policy-holders now number over 70,000, scattered through many States of the Union. The results already attained by this company show that it has had intelligent and conservative management.

G. A. Walker, its president, has been in the insurance business for the past eleven years, and has displayed great executive ability in his management of the Company. James W. Pegram, its secretary, has spent twenty- two years in this company’s service ever since it started, in fact—and twenty-six years in the life insurance business, and has ably seconded the efforts of the president in making this the most successful Southern Life Insurance Company.

[RVCJ03] — James W. Pegram, 2nd Vice President & W. L. T. Rogerson, Secretary, circa 1903
[RVCJ03] — James W. Pegram, 2nd Vice President & W. L. T. Rogerson, Secretary, circa 1903

The directors are these officials and John G. Walker; T. William Pemberton, a capitalist of this city, who has been connected with the company for nearly twenty years as a director, and one of its vice-presidents; Everett Waddey, of the Everett Waddey Printing Company; General F. JI. Cameron; Major George Johnston; W. J. Walker; F. P. Cooke, of T. F. Minor & Co., who succeeded his father, the late General John R. Cooke, in the board of directors, and John F. Slaughter, Jr., cashier of the Fidelity Bank of Durham, N. C.

Messrs. Coke & Pickrell, attorneys, are the counsel of the company. The large and increasing business of the company requires the employment of over fifty persons in the Richmond office.

[RVCJ93] — original offices in the Hanewinkel Building at Ninth & Main Streets
[RVCJ93] — original offices in the Hanewinkel Building at Ninth & Main Streets
Among the stockholders of the company are James B. Pace, president of the Planter’s National Bank; G. A. Walker, James Pleasants, W. J. Walker, T. William Pemberton, James W. Pegram, John G. Walker, of Richmond, Va.; Fred. Taylor, of Norfolk, Va.; Colonel Frank Reed, of Washington, D. C.; Major George Johnston, of Alexandria, Va., and many others.

The Home Offices of this company are situated at the corner of Ninth and Main streets, in the building shown in the engraving accompanying this matter. [RVCJ93]

July 2019 — looking towards the former location of the Hanewinkel Building, Ninth & Main Streets
July 2019 — looking towards the former location of the Hanewinkel Building, Ninth & Main Streets

That was true in 1893. Sometime between the publication of the 1893 and 1903 editions of Richmond, Virginia: The City on the James, the company moved from the Hanewinkel Building to the Broad Street location, made possible by the construction of Old City Hall in 1886. Until that year, the future offices of the Life Insurance Company of Virginia had been the city’s main municipal building following the demolition of Original City Hall in 1874, a depressing coda to the Municipal War and the Virginia Capitol Disaster of 1870.

(Richmond Magazine) — 2nd building under construction, center left, circa 1910— Cook Collection, The Valentine(Richmond Magazine) — 2nd building under construction, center left, circa 1910— Cook Collection, The Valentine
(Richmond Magazine) — 2nd building under construction, center left, circa 1910— Cook Collection, The Valentine

The new space must have been too small for their needs because by 1910 the company had embarked on constructing their own building on the same block, designed by the King of Neoclassicism, Alfred Charles Bossom of Clinton & Russell.

The initial building, known as the Life of Virginia Building, is considered one of the finest early 20th century Beaux-Arts-style buildings in Virginia. The main structure was built in several parts. The first building, facing Capitol Square, is five stories high and was completed in 1912.

(Historic Richmond) — detail of Corinthian pilasters with American eagles, cherubs, and winged horses, 2015
(Historic Richmond) — detail of Corinthian pilasters with American eagles, cherubs, and winged horses, 2015

The 1912 building features three-story-tall Corinthian pilasters with American eagles, cherubs, and winged horses. This is the only example of Pegasus in classical columns in all of Richmond. Bossom’s likely source for the Pegasus capitals was Andrea Palladio’s drawing of a Pegasus capital from the Temple of Mars Ultor in Rome. The original entrance to the building is on the southwest corner of the façade, facing Capitol Street. This entrance has “handsome bronze gates and an elaborately carved stone frontispiece with a semicircular arched pediment supported by scroll brackets.” The original entrance was glazed to make a window, but the exterior appearance has remained unaltered.

[ADR] — 1st addition, circa 1982
[ADR] — 1st addition, circa 1982

As evidence of the company’s rapid growth, the company built an addition in 1923 on the north side of the initial building, with a façade along Broad Street. The eleven-story tower, also designed by Clinton and Russell, reflects a “restrained classical style.” The 1923 addition features a cornice with modillions and dentils, doric order pilasters with a decorated band of anthemia and a balustrade along the roof edge. The building was designed as a Beaux-Arts high rise, which was a popular design for official buildings during the early part of the 20th century. The 1923 addition was further connected to the Life of Virginia portion of the building in 1955 with a six-story structure.

[ADR] — showing the 1st addition (left) and the modernist 2nd addition (right), circa 1982
[ADR] — showing the 1st addition (left) and the modernist 2nd addition (right), circa 1982

In 1965, Life of Virginia commissioned a second addition designed by the local architectural firm, Marcellus Wright and Partners. The steel framed structure of this addition artfully and purposefully uses concrete paneled faces to mimic the architectural divisions and bays of the earlier structures. Soon after its completion, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts included the Marcellus Wright and Partners addition it in its publication celebrating the Commonwealth’s finest architecture. William B. O’Neal, author, notes the differing floor heights rarely seen in most modern high-rises add “vivacity of proportion that is expressed with firmly modeled corners, rhythmic window divisions, and strong structural elements.” Robert Winthrop called the tower “the most sensitively designed highrise in the city.” (Historic Richmond)

July 2019 — showing the remaining facade of the 1912 building
July 2019 — showing the remaining facade of the 1912 building

The Commonwealth of Virginia also had a need for additional space, purchased the entire complex in 1975, and renamed it the General Assembly Building. Unfortunately, the state was not a good steward and allowed the building to decay to the point that the only choice was to demolish and start over.

It was not a popular decision and sparked much debate about how to preserve at least some portion. In the end, it was determined that the 1912 building held the greatest architectural significance. When the rest of the structure came down, its facade remained, and it will be incorporated into the new assembly building currently under construction.

(Life of Virginia Building is part of the Atlas RVA! Project)


Print Sources

  • [ADR] Architecture in Downtown Richmond. Robert Winthrop. 1982.
  • [RVCJ03] Richmond, Virginia: The City on the James: The Book of Its Chamber of Commerce and Principal Business Interests. G. W. Engelhardt. 1903.
  • [RVCJ93] Richmond, Virginia: The City on the James: The Book of Its Chamber of Commerce and Principal Business Interests. G. W. Engelhardt. 1893.

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