The Exchange Building is best distinguished by its Greek Revival architecture. Outside, tall, imposing columnns support a portico, or roof covering a porch. Through the front doors, the space opens into a circular, domed room. These features harken back to architecture found in temples of ancient Greece, the birthplace of democracy. In the United States, Greek Revival architecture was used in government buildings, banks, and courthouses, a popular way to identify the temples of American ideals in the mid-nineteenth century. Greek Revival was first brought to the United States by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, one of the architects of the Capitol in Washington, D.C.3
Over time, the Exchange Building served a number of purposes for downtown Petersburg. It functioned as a bank, a commodities wholesaler for tobacco, cotton, and grain, an office space for lawyers, newspapers, and police, a series of shops, and a Juvenile and Domestic Court. One story from the Exchange Building is of Henry Elebeck, a free man of color who owned a barber shop in the building. Situated in Petersburg's main commercial district, Elebeck's business strategically tapped into a market of wealthy visitors conducting business in the Exchange Building. At the same time, white citizens found barbering an undesirable trade, and free men of color, like Elebeck, filled this niche. As L. Diane Barnes wrote, In a region where dark skin designated servitude and bondage, free African Americans challenged the expectations of white society.4 The Exchange Building, built by tobacco planters and occupied by diverse occupations, reveals a complex history of commerce in Petersburg.
Since the 1970s, the Exchange Building has been home to the Siege Museum, which interprets the history of civilian life in the Civil War. As the second largest city in Virginia during the Civil War, Petersburg endured efforts to cut off supply lines and capture the city. Though not formally a siege, the ten months of fighting is often called the Siege of Petersburg. In 1864, it was at the Exchange Building that militiamen were called to fight in the First Battle of Petersburg, also known as the Battle of Old Men and Young Boys. The museum looks at how civilians lived their lives at the center of these conflicts.5 Today, the museum preserves these stories and the beautiful building that witnessed it.