“First, What kind of life was lived in this place, that is, Why and how did its builders build as they did?
And second, what rules with general validity and applicability did they follow?”
Carroll William Westfall, Learning From Pompeii.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Search for Architectural Unity at the Church on Richmond Hill

Illustration from Meade, Old Churches, Ministers, and Families of Virginia, 1857.

St. John’s Church, built as the "Upper Church" of Henrico Parish in the early 1740s, is Richmond’s oldest and most significant historical monument. One of the features that make the church so valuable and useful to historians and so complex to maintain is its extraordinary history of physical alteration. This occurred as the size and ecclesiology of its congregation changed over a period of many decades.  The church was repeatedly neglected, rediscovered, expanded, and reordered in response to the changing social and physical form of the city. Its status as the scene of Patrick Henry's celebrated "Give me liberty or give me death"speech has assured its centrality among Richmond's many architectural monuments. 

The architectural and liturgical world in which the church was built was slow to change and deeply rooted in local tradition. Beginning in the nineteenth century, however, the context of Anglican worship and of architectural theory became a source of tension within the diocese and parish as the church’s understanding of its role in the community altered. The parish’s authority as arbiter of the city’s spiritual life required careful maintenance of its position in the vital urban order. New non-parochial congregations, such as Monumental Episcopal Church of 1814, challenged its position in the diocese as the principal church of the city, at the same time that the Neo-classical building of Monumental Church and buildings serving other denominations, such as the Gothic Revival Second Presbyterian Church, challenged the “plain and neat” traditional form of the preceding colonial-era buildings.

Micajah Bates, Detail. Plan of the City of Richmond, 1835. Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia. Shows the church near the top with the wide north addition.

As the nineteenth century progressed, the parish increasingly recognized its responsibility not only to the people it served directly, but to the nation, as a custodian of a major shrine of the American Revolution and of a public cemetery in which several historically important lay figures lie buried. Certainly, how to interpreting the church as an historic monument has been a much-debated question for well over fifty years, and the ongoing juxtaposition of the goals of active parish and historic monument has created some awkward and costly formal problems.  

St. John’s Church. 1865. View from NW of unaltered west end. From Civil War glass negative collection, Library of Congress.

Wainscot details. Historic American Building Survey drawings, 1934.

The Church as Built

The 25’ by 60’ church of the 1740s was an elegant, if plain, rectangular building that included distinctive features such as segmentally arched window heads and a dentil cornice on the weatherboarded exterior and expensive paneled wainscoting and pews on the interior, as well as numerous costly, specialized furnishings required by the liturgy of the church. It was unmistakably a church, yet it shared the vocabulary of other urban and rural buildings such as courthouses and the dwellings of county leaders.  It was the first public building of any architectural pretension in the western portion of the county. Although altered through the years, it retains a significant amount of original material, including the original pulpit and tester (sometimes called a "sounding board").

The layout of the interior indicates the multi-directional liturgical use of the building in keeping with then-current local and British usage. Different sections of the building were used for the various services called for in the official Book of Common Prayer. Music was associated with the gallery in many churches, while the baptismal font was near the west entry door, symbolizing the entry into the Christian life, and the triple-decker pulpit was probably placed along the north wall in the body of the church, where the sermon and prayers offered each Sunday could be readily seen and heard. The chancel, a special area set apart at the east end of the church by a rail, was the location of the holy table, principally used during the seasonal celebrations of Holy Communion.  The people sat in high box pews, from which they could face in different directions. 

Two alternate conjectural floor plans for the original Richmond Church with four windows on the north and south (left) and with five windows (right).  Extant wall posts are shown hatched. There is documentary evidence of a door in the east end of the south side. Physical evidence of the chancel pews flanking the chancel. The pulpit location is based on historic precedent [C indicates the Chancel; P represents the location of the Pulpit, and G is the Gallery].

Plan of the church showing what the twenty-five-foot-wide addition might have looked like, had it been built. Similar additions were made to pre-Revolutionary churches.

The church is said to have been expanded in the 1770s.  A wing to the north would have realigned the entire building and formed a new nave, but there is no evidence that this addition was built. The layout of the church would likely have been a T-shape with the original east and west ends relegated to transepts to either side. A move of the pulpit to the center of the south wall at this time would have complimented the original chancel in the east. It was at this time that the church was used as the setting for the Second Virginia Convention in March of 1775, when Patrick Henry gave his fiery "Give me liberty or give me death"speech.

The Parish Disestablished

As the city expanded onto Shockoe Hill in the years following the Revolution, the desire grew for a church on Shockoe Hill, near the Capitol and the center of the growing population of the city. The new and architecturally distinguished Monumental Church attracted most of the city’s Episcopalians and eclipsed the older congregation. The old church was, by now, seen as wholly inadequate for modern worship and was too far from the center of population. The church was shuttered for most of the year.

A revival of the Episcopal Church in the 1820s spread across the state and many church buildings were reopened or refounded. The shift to an evangelical ecclesiology elevated preaching over the sacrament.  High walled box pews and strictly hierarchical seating interfered with the hearing and spread of the word of God. New churches took the form of large, well-lighted, architecturally distinguished auditoriums. Neoclassical and Greek Revival architectural forms replaced the provincial expressions of colonial Virginia. Most importantly, brick and stuccoed masonry was used for all the substantial new structures in the city and region and a weatherboarded frame church must have looked increasingly out-of-date.

By 1818, the church board or vestry, which had recorded its dissatisfaction with the old church as early as 1807, had determined that the old church was inadequate. A new brick building was begun on a new site, located at the northeast corner of Broad and Twenty-third streets. Although the cornerstone was laid in June of 1818, the Panic of 1819 and the ensuing economic depression put a stop to the plans. The half-completed structure was said to have been a large square building with projections giving it a hexagonal appearance. Its shell stood as late as 1828 [Burton 31-32]. The polygonal shape of the new church provides a clue that the old church was facing substantial pressure to imitate the high-style Neo-classicism on display at Monumental Church. Over the next seventy-five years, the old congregation would repeatedly strive to achieve a modern, spacious, and unified setting for contemporary worship.

As other churches of various denominations competed with the town’s original church for members, the lack of a name and an expressive architectural identity for the old “Town Church” became a problem. Under this pressure, the building was renamed St. John’s Church as early as 1829. In the same year, a majority of members moved to an existing brick building in the valley below, leaving behind a determined few to repair and expand the church to meet the challenges imposed by the city.

The Church Expanded

In spite of financial deficits, a large new wing was added to the north side of the church in 1830 to increase its capacity. The vestry was careful to present an architecturally unified exterior to the city. They extended the modillion cornice and beaded weatherboard of the original building to the new wing. The original church was retained as a cross wing forming east and west transepts flanking a large, rectangular preaching hall oriented to the south. A fair held by the parish’s Female Charitable Association in 1833 raised $900, enough to build a three-stage tower topped by a miniature octagonal element derived from the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens, an icon of Greek Revival architecture. The church began to respond architecturally to its changed responsibilities as a disestablished church competing for members with a variety of denominations.

In keeping with the evangelical emphasis on preaching over the sacraments, the original tall pulpit, by now moved to the center of the south wall, was placed above and behind the communion table. Physical evidence suggests that the work at this time included cutting down the pews to give better sight lines and more flexible seating arrangements. The north wing had narrow slip pews facing south.

Conjectural plan of the church as altered in 1830. Chancel, pulpit, tower, and gallery shapes and locations are based on contemporary reports and images like the watercolor seen below.

St. John’s Church. Watercolor of interior, late nineteenth century. St. John’s Collection.  Postcard reproduction, 1870s? Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Virginia. The pulpit and Holy Table are in the center of the south wall. The original west gallery is intact. The two chandeliers were added in the antebellum era when evening services became popular. Original flat-paneled wainscot and sash windows can be seen to either side of the pulpit.

Evangelical Parish and Revolutionary Shrine

The antebellum era saw an increasing interest in and reverence for the founding generation in the face of seemingly intractable sectional problems. The fame of St. John’s Church as the setting of one of the iconic moments of the American Revolution made it the city’s principal historic monument. Visitors regularly climbed the hill to see the spot where Henry made his speech. Henry Howe’s Historical Collections of Virginia of 1845 featured a drawing of it, as did Bishop Meade’s Old Churches and Families of  Virginia [1858].

In the post-Civil War era the parish saw, not only major improvements and architectural changes, beginning in 1875, but a great increase in missionary zeal for the population in the eastern part of the city. Along with an interest in Romanesque and Gothic architectural and decorative detail, the Episcopal church shared with other denominations a powerful interest in reaching the poor and unchurched of the nation’s urban centers. St. John’s not only provided educational and other help to the poor white and black citizens in their neighborhood, they opened their church to them and welcomed them, without, however, overstepping contemporary racial and class boundaries.

The Church Building Re-ordered and Unified

In spite of its well-known historical associations, by the post-Civil War era the venerable structure was unable to hold its own as a parish church within the growing city. Traditional urban practice insisted that buildings that were out of joint with the architectural standards of the community were to be replaced or adapted, if they were to be actively used. A large-scale renovation of the church was proposed and carried out in the late 1870s, designed to bring architectural order to the church building.

In keeping with ecclesiastical trends, a shallow apse was added behind the pulpit to provide a focal point for the congregation at the location where most of the service was now conducted. The goal of the project was clearly to make a consistent whole out of a disjointed and architecturally unfocussed building. The asymmetrical west gallery and the robing room below it were removed, the north galleries were cut back, and, most dramatically, the flat ceiling was eliminated and a shallow plaster vault inserted, ending in a half saucer dome over the pulpit. The church interior was then fully unified by a comprehensive decorative scheme that brought the entire church together as a whole architectural ensemble and corresponded to the rich colors and patterns derived from the Gothic models that were then recommended for church interiors. One highly respected parishioner was not in favor of the scheme at first and declared that “this Colonial Church in colors would look like a highly ornamented bonnet on an old lady’s head,” but the scheme was ultimately accepted and executed.

Layout of the church in 1880. The new, unified appearance of the church held its own in the context of Episcopal church architecture in the diocese. The 1741section was fully integrated into the overall form. Chancel, pulpit, gallery, and tower locations are based on contemporary photographs.

Interior view looking south from gallery, late 1880s. Richmond Virginia Illustrated. Indianapolis, IN: William B. Burford, 1891. Note the vaulted ceiling and painted pilasters.
Interior from the east after the decorative painting has been covered. It shows the Gothic communion table, chairs and lectern with the eighteenth-century pulpit, and west end without the gallery. Postcard, Detroit Pub., 1901.
Beginning in 1887, with the chancel windows, stained glass was gradually substituted for the clear glass that formerly filled the windows of the church, even though they contrasted dramatically with the historic appearance of the church. The walls were subdivided by large semi-classical columns with a Gothic border at the top and a stencilled border along the top of the historic paneled wainscot. A similar border extended around the outer edge of the ceiling and the chancel ceiling was decorated with stars. The four windows on the south wall, however, retained early, segmentally arched window sashes. New carpets were laid in the church. The rector had the eighteenth-century pulpit canopy, discovered in an outbuilding, cleaned and placed above the historic pulpit. A remarkable intarsia design of a radiant sun was discovered in the center. In spite of the reverence shown to the colonial-era paneled pulpit, a new Gothic communion table and prayer desk were presented as memorials to replace the original chancel furniture. 

The Church Building Adapted

At the start of the twentieth century, reformists in the Episcopal Church at large encouraged more formal and elaborate services that required new architectural forms and furnishings. Enlarged chancels gave new and existing churches a form that suited the more catholic sensibility sweeping the Episcopal Church. The addition of altars, candles, and stained glass reflected the new, more ritualistic sensibility, manifested at first in the appearance of church interiors, and later in liturgical form.  A divided choir- in which singers dressed in cassocks and surplices faced each other across the chancel- was added to many Virginia church buildings in spite of resistance by some older clergy and parishioners. As a result of this change in spirit, the St. John's congregation added a new vaulted chancel at the center of the south wall in 1904-1905. The chancel included a raised, divided choir, a recessed organ chamber, and a paneled sanctuary. The painted decoration from the 1880s was not renewed.

Plan of the church as extended in 1905. The parish had, by shifting windows and altering the ceiling, pews, entries, and galleries in a piecemeal fashion, succeeded in achieving a unified whole consonant with contemporary Anglican liturgical practice. Except for the wainscoting and four windows on the south wall, the 1741 section had been almost completely assimilated.

Interior of St. John's Church, Richmond, Va. Tuck and Sons. No published or copyright date (c. 1906). Virginia Commonwealth University. Digital Images Collection. 

The Church Building Restored

Little occurred to affect the form of the church during the first half of the twentieth century. Depression and war combined to slow the alteration of the city’s buildings. Beginning in the 1930s, the radical science of restoration replaced the slow process of organic adaptation as the preferred response to the pre-existent. Colonial Williamsburg (satirized by Richmond author James Branch Cabell as “the southern branch of the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey,” set a new, more archaeological, tone in Virginia. Meanwhile, beginning in the late 1950s, the St. John's vestry became aware of serious structural problems resulting from the many demands placed upon the inadequate framing, much of which dated to the earliest periods. In keeping with new standards of architectural conservation, a massive program of structural stabilization resulted in the nearly invisible strengthening or replacement of the framing members throughout the church with steel.

Some historically minded members of the community were, however, dissatisfied with the multi-layered and complex form of the church. Tour guides found it difficult to explain the seating arrangements at the time of the Second Virginia Convention. The success experienced in raising funds for the structural renovation of the church encouraged its leaders to propose a restoration designed to undo, as much as possible, the accumulated architectural efforts of the previous 150 years.

The restoration envisioned by the newly organized St. John’s Foundation encompassed the entire church and was designed as much to interpret the period of the church’s original construction as it was to demonstrate its appearance at the time of the Second Virginia Convention. The project, which began in 1963, proceeded slowly and deliberately and took many years. The entire program was, in essence, a romantic attempt to give the impression of a late eighteenth-century building to the entire structure, removing the most intrusive nineteenth- and twentieth-century elements without disrupting the regular life of the parish or removing significant added memorials.

James Scott Rawlings, original proposed east end restoration drawing showing tablets of the law, new east windows, raised pews, relocated pulpit, board ceiling with cornice and chandelier, and a wholly implausible flagstone floor, 1963.

The east-west historic axis of the church with the eighteenth-century chancel as restored at the east end. Recreated box pews can be seen on the right and the 1830s north wing and its intact slip pews are located to the left. The c 1880 vaulted ceiling survives above.

A Monument with Two Purposes

In the end, the vestry, as custodians of the parish, and the foundation, as restorers of the monument, were unable to combine their divergent programs for the church in a unified plan to serve a structure that is both a major tourist destination and an active church. The pews were rearranged and the fully intact wainscoting mistakenly and heavily reworked. The former chancel at the east end, the site of a exit door since c. 1880, was convincingly refitted as an elaborately detailed eighteenth-century chancel for display to visitors. The early twentieth-century chancel to the south was retained intact to be used for church services. A small, but fierce, battle between parishioners and the architect over the replacement of two Gothic Revival hymnboards summed up the unavoidable incongruities of the project.  The spiritual forces won out over the historical and the anachronistic elements remain in place today (see photo below).

This view from the north shows today's spiritual axis of the church, decorated for Chirstmas. Note the Gothic Revival hymnboards to either side of the 1905 Chancel (John DeMajo, Churches of Richmond website) 
Thus, the church was given a double axis, with the restored triple-decker pulpit moved across the 1905 chancel archway, where it could serve both “churches.” The compromise essentially undid previous attempts at unification and responded to the bifurcated purpose of the building with an inventive design that allows both uses to continue under one roof. 

Research based in the Historic Structure Report for Historic St. John's Church, Gibson Worsham for 3north Architects, 2007.

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