The neoclassical structure that houses the research library and museum of the Virginia Historical Society was built in seven stages between 1912 and 2014.
Building Battle Abbey
The first part, completed in 1913, was built by the Confederate Memorial Association as a shrine to the Confederate dead and as a repository for the records of the Lost Cause. The association's driving force, Charles Broadway Rouss, was a Virginia veteran of the Confederate army who later made his fortune in New York. Rouss contributed $100,000, one half of the sum needed for the construction of the building: the remainder came in small contributions from veteran's camps, school children, and ladies' organizations throughout the South.
One fund raising effort in 1897, a piece of sheet music entitled The Broadway Rouss Two-Step, "sold for the benefit of the Battle Abbey of the South," so captured the public's imagination that the building became popularly known as "Battle Abbey" and has remained so ever since. Officially the building was designated the Confederate Memorial Institute, but the name was seldom used even by those closest to the association.
Inside Battle Abbey
The first portion of the building, including the marble entrance hall and two flanking monumental galleries, was designed by the Philadelphia firm of Bissell and Sinkler and was constructed on land donated by the Commonwealth of Virginia. One of its most striking features is the series of murals, "The Four Seasons of the Confederacy," by French artist Charles Hoffbauer. Also of interest are the seals of the eleven Confederate states, located beneath the cornice in the front entrance hall, done in bas-relief with gold-leaf accent.
In 1921 the first addition to Battle Abbey was completed, a nobly proportioned "Memorial Hall" built to house the archives and the extensive portrait collection donated to the Confederate Memorial Institute by its next-door neighbor, the R. E. Lee Camp, No. I, Confederate Veterans.
Virginia Historical Society moves in
Twenty-five years later, in 1946, the Confederate Memorial Association merged with the Virginia Historical Society. Through this merger, the society acquired Battle Abbey, which it maintained as a separate exhibition building until 1959, when the large, four-story west addition was completed, enabling the institution to move its offices, book and manuscript stacks, processing areas, and reading room into the Battle Abbey building.
Since moving to Battle Abbey, the Virginia Historical Society continued to enlarge its collections. As a result, additional space was needed, and building expansions in 1992, 1998, and 2006 greatly increased the size of the headquarters building to nearly 200,000 square feet. These changes enabled the historical society to offer citizens of the commonwealth a research library, museum exhibitions, and numerous educational programs. Today, the 1912 space serves as the Boulevard entrance to the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.
On May 20, 1912, a crowd gathered to watch as officials of the Confederate Memorial Association celebrated the laying of the cornerstone of Battle Abbey. The first photograph in the slideshow below shows the stone after it was put in place. A carved niche in the cornerstone contained a time capsule in a copper box. On April 18, 2012, Paul Levengood, President and CEO, removed the one-hundred-year-old time capsule from the cornerstone (shown in slideshow). The box (shown at right) was stuffed to the lid with more than 100 items, including newspapers, postcards, Confederate army documents and currency, and materials relating to the Confederate Memorial Institute.
Learn about the history of the Virginia Historical Society here.