History of the VHS
The Virginia Historical Society was founded in 1831. Like most of the nation's older
historical societies, it has always
been a private organization; one that derives virtually all its
support from membership and endowment. At the organizational meeting in 1831, Chief Justice
John Marshall was elected its first president, and former president James Madison was elected its
first honorary member. During the early years, between 1831 and 1861, the Society acquired
valuable books, manuscripts, museum objects, and natural history specimens for its collections.
From time to time, it published the texts of historic documents and the addresses delivered at its
annual meetings. It was hampered, however, by having virtually no endowment and no
War and recovery
During the Civil War, the collections were moved from place to place, with the result that
many valuable items disappeared. The whole of the society's endowment, the sum of five
thousand dollars, was invested in Confederate bonds, so it, too, was lost.
Five years after the end of the war, in 1870, the Society was reorganized, and efforts were
made to reassemble its scattered collections. Temporary quarters were found in the
Westmoreland Club building, and the Society, under the direction of its librarian, embarked on a
highly ambitious publications program. Eleven volumes of the Collections series were published
in as many years, but the venture, having little financial support, brought the Society to virtual
bankruptcy. In 1892 new leadership was brought in.
Finding a Home
In 1893 the Society, for the first time, occupied its own building, 707 East Franklin
Street, known as the Lee House, because it had served as the wartime home of General Robert E. Lee's
family. Just a 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 librarian for thirty-five years (1898-1933), the book and manuscript collections grew
dramatically, and, as a reflection of his own personal interests, began increasingly to focus on
The growth of the collections and concerns about security led the Society's Executive
Committee in 1933 to approve the construction of a fireproof annex to the back of the Lee House
to accommodate the Society's library and museum collections.
Battle Abbey came into the Society's possession in 1946 when the Society merged with,
or more accurately, absorbed the Confederate Memorial Association. The Association had been
formed in 1895 for the purpose of raising funds to construct a building dedicated to the memory
of 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 Society acquired Battle Abbey, the Society's president,
Alexander Wilbourne Weddell, and his wife,
Virginia (Chase) Steedman Weddell, were killed in
a train accident. By the 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 Society, for the first time in more than a century of
existence, had adequate funds to carry out its scholarly mission.
At much the same time John Melville Jennings joined the staff.. He was appointed
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 wing was
added to the back of Battle Abbey to accommodate 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.
A beacon of international scholarship
During the decades 1960-1980, the Society's collections grew to a remarkable degree, the
publications program became more active, and increased numbers of researchers consulted the Society's resources.
Devoting itself almost entirely to the academic community, the VHS 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 with additional museum galleries, a
strengthened endowment, increased public programs, a paper conservation lab, and an education
Telling Virginia's story
Because of the statewide nature of our comprehensive collection, we have the unique
ability to exhibit and interpret broad themes in Virginia history. A long-term exhibit entitled
"The Story of Virginia, an American Experience," opened in October 1995 and was well
received by all in spite of the 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 resources,
previously unavailable to the public. A unique private-public partnership resulted between the VHS
and the VDHR. As part of a $30 million fund raising
campaign, we added a 38,000 sq. ft. wing to our headquarters in 1998. Two floors are leased from the
VHS by the VDHR, providing state-of-the-art storage for their collections and easy access to
them by curators, scholars, and the public. The VDHR's staff moved into our 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 known private-public partnership of its kind in
The main floor of the 1998 wing houses the new "Story of Virginia" exhibit
that is five times larger than our previous one. It includes many of the 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.
Home for history
In 2004 the VHS board of trustees 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.