Monumental Church, Richmond, Virginia

I apologize for the lack of posts since end of January. I’ve been out of town a lot and had no motivation to write. I also haven’t been very many places to think about how they interpret the site.

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to go on a tour of Monumental Church located at 1224 E. Broad Street, Monumental Church. This church was designed by Robert Mills and was finished in 1814. The tour was held in conjunction with a mid-day lecture at the Library of Virginia by Meredith Henne Baker. Baker’s book, The Richmond Theater Fire: Early America’s First Great Disaster, has just been released and is the first complete study of the Richmond theater fire.

This photograph of Monumental was taken in 1865 after Richmond fell into Union control. Original photograph held at Library of Congress (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/cwp2003000695/PP/).

Monumental Church is located on the site of the Richmond Theater which burned on December 26, 1811 and the fire killed 72 people: slaves, the wealthy, the middle class, and poor alike; though ironically it was the gentry who suffered the most casualties. Monumental rose up as a tribute to those who lost their life. The basement of the church contains a crypt where the 72 people were buried.

This is the crypt containing those who died in the 1811 Richmond Theater fire located under the sanctuary. Image by Emmanuel Dabney

Monumental served as an Episcopal Church but over the years the Medical College of Virginia (MCV) expanded and grew up around  Monumental. Automobiles also changed the accessibility of Monumental to parishioners and from what we were told by the late 1960s, MCV was using it occasionally but the congregation had moved on to other churches. In 1983, the Historic Richmond Foundation was given the building and has been engaged with restoring the church.

Part of the interpretive challenge for this building has been the restoration project. The building was covered in Portland cement, which does not allow buildings to breathe. Cement spalls over time but holds in moisture (the same reasons why cement should not be poured in basements of historic buildings or used to repair historic masonry). Monumental was built with large stone blocks and thus the cement had to be carefully removed.

On the front portico is a marble monument with the names of those who died and on top is an urn. Over the years the urn had become weathered and in 1999 broke from the base. A reproduction of the original was installed in 2005.

This is the monument on the front portico. Notice that the monument is a blending of elements of the antiquities. The urn is Grecian-style but is decorated with egg-and-dart pattern around the rim. The torches are inverted representative of life extinguished. Image by Emmanuel Dabney

The interior, like most interiors, had been changed over time but the organization is mostly finished with restoring the 1814 paint scheme. Monumental is fascinating because Robert Mills blends Egyptian, Greek, and Roman architectural elements together.

The capital of this column is outside of the tradition as Mills instead decorates the top of the column with anthemion at the corners. Image by Emmanuel Dabney

This deep blue contrasts with the white exterior and white box pews. We were told that the Historic Richmond Foundation still has to reproduce the faux marble on part of the pulpit which will be spectacular when that is finished. Image by Emmanuel Dabney

I am so pleased that I went to Monumental yesterday; however, I would like to suggest that there were some ways to make the church more interesting through the parishioners.

We were told that Edgar Poe, then the adopted child of John and Frances Allan attended and pointed out where they sat. I sat in the pew of Chief Justice John Marshall. However, I learned only after I came home and did some web searching that Marshall actually was too tall to fit comfortably in the pew and thus he sat near the door which he kept flung open. He sat so his legs were out in the aisle. To me this just made the church even more interesting as the minister would be preaching and there was the Chief Justice with his legs in the aisle.

Though I closed the door to Chief Justice Marshall's pew, when he went he apparently kept it open so he could extend his legs into the aisle so as to be more comfortable as Marshall was six feet tall. Image by Emmanuel Dabney

Meredith Baker mentioned in her talk about the rapid growth of churches and church-going after the Theater Fire. I think this could have been explored in the interpretation of the church. Some sources I found hinted that while Chief Justice Marshall attended church he was never confirmed into first, St. John’s Episcopal and later, Monumental. One source stated he went to Monumental because he thought it would set a good example within Richmond.

This church is lucky to have approximately 3,500 records from 1812-1967 at the Virginia Historical Society. Hopefully the Historic Richmond Foundation will explore these even more to weave together a narrative that captures the memorial nature of the site alongside the religious activity, the uniqueness of Robert Mills’ design, and the preservation of the church.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Monumental Church, Richmond, Virginia

  1. hello Em, it’s always a pleasure to read you stories and research you have found…thanks so much for what you do.
    Vivian Murphy

  2. Bruce Schutrum

    We have in the shop a Skinner Organ that has several shipping tags: “c/o Monumental Epis Ch Richmond, VA” – so I had to find out what was so “monumental” about this church. Now it is clear. Thanks!

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