RICHMOND, Va. -- Imagine moving a small town made up politicians and those who assist, guide and influence them into a smaller, more cut-up space with plain-colored walls that make it easy to get lost.
That’s what’s been going on this week with the Virginia General Assembly as state lawmakers settle into their new temporary digs just a little more than a block away from the GA’s home of four decades.
“I’ve now figured out where the elevators are,” said Sen. Dick Saslaw (D-35th District), “where the men’s room is and where my office is. It’s still kind of hard to find some of the committee rooms because you’ve got to make about 25 turns after you get onto the ground floor at Bank Street.”
Saslaw, the Senate Minority Leader, is talking about the Pocohantas Building - former home of the Attorney General’s Office and the Virginia Lottery. It sits just below the sculptured lawn of the State Capitol, across Bank Street. (Which is now closed and protected from vehicle attacks on lawmakers and other pedestrians by large concrete, mushroom-like barriers.)
“It’s small,” Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-9th District) said of the new GAB. “It’s a lot smaller.”
As the session got started this week, there were a lot of politicians, assistants, lobbyists and reporters wandering around the twin-towered, warrenlike building, trying to figure out the layout and where they needed to be.
“We’re all getting lost,” said House Clerk G. Paul Nardo. “I walked through the stairwell thinking I was going down a flight of stairs and walked into a men’s room. And I was the one who spent a year and a half trying to organize that (the transition).”
It’s a complex undertaking, this $300 million, four-year project that includes musical chairs at the highest level.
The old GAB was a Frankenstein-like creation, made of four different faces from different eras.
The western section, I believe, is/was the ugliest building in Richmond, paying not one harmonious note with the early 1900s bank building to the east that anchored the rambling structure.
There were problems with asbestos, heating and cooling.
“A lot of people would feel sick in that other building because all of the air wasn’t very good,” McClellan said. “After about two or three days (into the session) you felt congested.”
The new building feels fresher and brighter, she said.
The southeastern shell of the old GAB is being stabilized so it can be gutted. The rest of the building is coming down.
But the one thing the old building had was art. Each session would be graced with fresh creations by Virginians, floor after floor. It was the best art show in town.
But it’s not happening yet in the new GAB.
“I think we have a little room for improvement, frankly,” Nardo said. “It’s been a slow start to the House getting everyone organized. But everyone’s here. We’re all starting to get kind of nestled in, so we’ll see.
“But it’s a very different,” he added. “We’ve been in that General Assembly Building since 1976 and we all knew its rhythm and rhymes. And so we now need to find our new temporary home for the next four years.”
Nardo said lawmakers will likely be bringing in art from their districts in coming weeks.
There’s no doubt this is a tricky, interesting move for a General Assembly that has seen a shift in power in recent years.
I also have little doubt that some beautiful Virginia art on those plain walls will make it feel more like home and help keep people there from feeling lost.
Art is like that.