I had been to the Virginia State Capitol many times since I moved to Richmond in 1989. I’ve viewed proceedings in the House and Senate chambers, held meetings for students, given several lectures in the meeting rooms, and toured the building with family, friends, and students. Yet, until I took part in the Humanities in Class project with the National Humanities Center, I had not thought carefully about why the building was so important, both to me and to the people of Virginia. Just recently I visited the Capitol with a group of students and as I looked up at huge white columns and wandered through the building, I began to think more deeply about the transformative nature of this place. I looked past the architecture, the museum pieces and the contemporary issues debated in the General Assembly to the problem of race in the history of Virginia. I also began to think of its ability to transform the lives of my students.
An architectural design conveys the meaning or purpose of a building. The designer want us to experience something when we see, enter, or tour a building. But it strikes me that the architecture itself can have many meanings and that historical events and people who live and work in buildings can transform their original intent. The humanities should teach us to appreciate architecture and understand the meaning of public buildings, but they also give us the tools to see beyond the edifice, the structure, the artistic beauty. When we look beyond the purpose of the building to the people inside, we are likely to find a new and different meaning and purpose.