St. John’s Church. 1865. View from NW of original west end. From Civil War glass negative collection, Library of Congress.
There were no public buildings in the initial settlement at the Falls of the James River. The first to be built was a small chapel on what is now known as Chapel Island in the James, established in the 1720s. When built in 1742-3, the new church at Richmond architecturally proclaimed its civic role in the young town by its free-standing position on a half-square at the highest point of the grid of 1737. At the same time, the church, by its traditional orientation to the east, proclaimed its position as ascendant over political conventions.
William Byrd had the town of Richmond laid out in 1737. Since, as a privately sponsored settlement, there was no initial intention for any public buildings in the town, land was not set aside for that purpose. Soon after the town was laid out, however, Byrd convinced the vestry of Henrico Parish to place a proposed new upper church at Richmond. He intentionally gave them two prominently placed but marginal lots at the northeast corner of the plat. These were at the highest point on what was then known as Indian Town Hill overlooking the lower town.
The new church on the hill (known, since the mid-nineteenth century as St. John’s Church) was a marker of the rise of the town above a mere entrepot. Henrico Parish was over hundred years old and served the entire county of Henrico. Most Virginia parishes, responsible for building and maintaining churches, hiring ministers, caring for the indigent, settling boundaries, and punishing minor moral offenses, existed as a coterminous, spiritually oriented jurisdiction separate and parallel to that of the county. The church existed to remind the polity of its spiritual orientation, in much the same manner as the town’s first public building. Completed in 1742, it was aligned to point east in the prescribed medieval manner, ignored the street grid, resisting by its diagonal siting to fit neatly into what must have then been a barely discernable urban order. In many ways the church most closely resembled its rural rather than its urban contemporaries. At first, the majority of parishioners probably lived on farms in the higher ground around Richmond.
Mijacah Bates Map (1835) shows church near the top.
A drawing from the 1780s shows the county jail and the boundaries beyond which prisoners were not permitted to pass. A narrow path followed what must be a footpath up the hill diagonally to the church so that debtors and other prisoners could attend the services. The surrounding churchyard provided the town with a central place for burials. Often difficult of access from below, the church was, however, located on the side of a major road leading to the northeast, now know as Nine Mile Road.
The church 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 and 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 grand houses. It was the first public building of architectural pretensions in the western portion of the county. Although altered through the years, it retains a significant amount of original material [Worsham, Historic Structure Report].
On December 20, 1739 the vestry, ready to push ahead with the parish’s current building projects, met to select undertakers for two projects: construction of the new church and of a barn at the glebe. As undertaker for the church, they entered into an agreement with one of themselves, vestryman Richard Randolph. Col. Richard Randolph of Curl’s (1686-1748), burgess in 1740, and at one time treasurer of the colony, was one of the most prominent men of the parish and the colony and had served on the vestry from before 1730. As a member of the upper echelons of the colony’s elite, Col. Randolph was possibly drawn into the building process at Richmond by the remoteness of the location and the difficulty of finding an available professional in the immediate area.
The traditional practice in many parishes was to base the design of a new building on an existing building with which the vestry were familiar, either close at hand or, in the case of an ambitious program, on a more unusual building at a distance [Upton 31]. The Henrico vestry took as their “moddle,” the principal parish church at Curls, a proven church form.Where some vestries haggled over details, changing specifications and dimensions, the Henrico vestry never altered their pattern. Although we do not know what Curl’s Church looked like nor when it was built, it was almost certainly of frame construction and was probably rectangular in form like its successor, the original Upper Church at Richmond.
The subtle curve-topped windows at Richmond are a distinguished feature. Dell Upton discusses the significance of pedimented doors and rounded shapes like arched or compass-headed windows and ceilings and curved communion rails as setting apart the church as exalted above other buildings by the use of conventional signs of honor and dignity.
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 south door and physical evidence of the chancel pews. The pulpit location is conjectural.
The form most popular for Virginia churches at that time was a simple rectangle, often considerably more than twice as long as it was wide. At twenty-five by sixty feet, the size of the church at Richmond was common among other churches in the colony [Upton 57]. The length of the frame upper chapel at Christ Church Parish, Middlesex County, was settled at twenty-five by sixty feet in the specifications dating from 1711. According to Dell Upton, the overall size had to do with the acoustic limits mandated by the need for clearly audible preaching. Church lengths extended from around forty feet to sixty, but none were ever built that exceeded seventy feet in length. The frequent provision of a double square plus an additional partial square to form the popular twenty-five-by sixty foot form may represent the conceptual separation of the chancel from the rest of the church even though it was visually incorporated into the uninterrupted interior space.
Plate 45. Illustration from Meade, Old Churches,Ministers, and Families of Virginia, 1857.
The church served Richmond’s only church for nearly fifty years. It was altered in response to disestablishment and the growth and westward tendency of the city’s population. A large wing was added to the north side of the church in 1830 to increase its capacity. The vestry was careful to extend the modillion cornice and beaded weatherboard of the original building. The church began to respond architecturally to its changed responsibilities as a disestablished church competing for members with a variety of denominations. The original church was transformed into minor transepts adjoining a large rectangular preaching hall oriented to the south. A three-stage tower was added in 1833, topped by a miniature octagonal element derived from the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens, an icon of Greek Revival architecture.