The Virginia Historical Society (VHS) was founded in 1831, making it the fourth-oldest such institution in the nation. It has operated without interruption for more than 180 years, which makes it the oldest cultural institution in the Old Dominion. The VHS is the only organization dedicated to collecting and interpreting all of Virginia’s history—all areas, all time periods, and all people. For this reason, although it is an entirely private non-profit, the General Assembly designated the VHS the official historical society of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Currently the VHS serves a wide range of constituents, including elementary school students and teachers, scholars, genealogists, and life-long learners, by a diverse array of exhibitions, lectures, publications, travel opportunities, educational programs, and digital initiatives. And supporting all of these efforts are the collections, which now number nearly 9 million manuscripts, books, photographs, paintings, pieces of furniture, and other artifacts.
The society was founded in 1831. Like most of the nation’s older historical societies, it has always been a private organization and derives virtually all its support from membership and endowment. The VHS elected Chief Justice John Marshall as its first president and former president James Madison its first honorary member.
During the early years, between 1831 and 1861, the society acquired valuable books, manuscripts, museum objects, and natural history specimens. From time to time, it published the texts of historic documents and the addresses delivered at its annual meetings. This was hampered, however, by having virtually no endowment and no permanent home.
During the Civil War, VHS collections were moved from place to place, with the result that many valuable items disappeared. The society invested its entire endowment—$5,000—in Confederate bonds, so it, too, was lost.
In 1870, the VHS was reorganized and attempted to reassemble its scattered collections. The society found temporary headquarters in the Westmoreland Club building, and embarked on a highly ambitious publications program. Eleven volumes were published in as many years, but the venture, having little financial support, brought the VHS to virtual bankruptcy.
Under new leadership, in 1893 the society, for the first time, occupied its own building, 707 East Franklin Street. Today this location is known as the Lee House because it had served as the wartime home of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s family. Just one month after its move, the society published the first issue of the quarterly journal, Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. Under the direction of William Glover Stanard, the book and manuscript collections grew dramatically, and, as a reflection of his own personal interests, began increasingly to focus on genealogy.
The growth of the collections and concerns about security led the VHS executive committee in 1933 to approve construction of a fireproof annex to the back of the Lee House to accommodate the society’s library and museum collections.
The VHS acquired Battle Abbey in 1946 when it merged with, or more accurately, absorbed the Confederate Memorial Association. The association had been formed in 1895 for the purpose of commemorating those who had died for the Lost Cause. The cornerstone of Battle Abbey (as the building came to be known) was laid in 1912, but the opening of the building was delayed by the First World War and Charles Hoffbauer’s determination to repaint the murals in the Mural Gallery that he had virtually completed before the war. The building finally opened its doors in 1921.
In 1948, two years after the VHS acquired Battle Abbey, its president, Alexander Wilbourne Weddell, and his wife, Virginia (Chase) Steedman Weddell, were killed in a train accident. By terms of their wills, the society received the bulk of their estates together with Virginia House, their Tudor residence in Windsor Farms. With the Weddells’ generous bequests added to its endowment, the VHS for the first time in more than a century of existence, had adequate funds to carry out its scholarly mission.
John Melville Jennings became director in 1953 and immediately began introducing up-to-date cataloging techniques to the library, developing its collections, and recruiting professional staff. In 1958-59 a large addition to the back of Battle Abbey accommodated the society’s offices, library, and reading room. The society left the Lee House and moved into its new quarters in the spring of 1959.
During the decades 1960-80, the society’s collections grew to a remarkable degree, the publications program became more active, and increased numbers of researchers consulted the VHS resources. Devoting itself almost entirely to the academic community, the society eventually became a beacon of international scholarship in American and southern history.
In June 1992, after raising $12 million and expanding the headquarters building, the VHS reopened as the Center for Virginia History. It embraced a broader vision with additional museum galleries, a strengthened endowment, increased public programs, a paper conservation lab, and an education department.
Because of the statewide nature of its comprehensive collection, the VHS has the unique ability to exhibit and interpret broad themes in Virginia history. A long-term exhibition entitled The Story of Virginia, An American Experience opened in October 1995 and was well received in spite of limited gallery space. The feeling that a larger exhibition was needed coincided with recognition that the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (VDHR), a state agency, also had a vast collection of archaeological artifacts, as well as other resources, previously unavailable to the public. A unique private-public partnership resulted between the VHS and VDHR. As part of a $30 million fund raising campaign, the VHS added a 38,000-square-foot wing in 1998. Two floors were leased from the VHS by the VDHR, providing state-of-the-art storage for their collections and easy access by curators, scholars, and the public. The VDHR’s staff moved into the facility while maintaining their current governing and operating independence. This joining of the VDHR’s archaeological and historic preservation functions with our research library, museum, and educational functions on one “campus” is the first private-public partnership of its kind in the country.
On September 17, 1997, the VHS unveiled The War Horse, a memorial to the Civil War horse, designed by Tessa Pullan of Rutland, England, and given to the historical society by Paul Mellon of Upperville, Virginia. Mounted on a six-foot base, the statue stands in front of the historical society’s building on the Boulevard in Richmond.
The main floor of the 1998 wing houses the Story of Virginia exhibition. It includes many of VDHR’s archaeological holdings, expanding the story to include Virginia’s 16,000 years of prehistory. The strength of the VDHR collection—ordinary and everyday artifacts—complements ours, which emphasizes the exceptional and extraordinary. Together, these artifacts provide visitors with a comprehensive history of the commonwealth and moves the VHS closer to its goal of being the Center for Virginia History.
In 2004 the VHS board announced the 175th Anniversary Campaign: Home for History. The most visible component of this $55 million effort was another new wing completed in early 2006. This $16 million addition of 54,000 square feet includes a 500-seat auditorium, new exhibition space, a state-of-the-art classroom, and enough space to house the next twenty years’ worth of anticipated growth in collections.