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Monumental Church is a nationally significant memorial
in honor of the victims of a disastrous theater fire. The building is
also among America’s earliest and most distinctive Greek Revival
churches designed by one of the nation’s most important early architects.
The Richmond Theatre was in a wood-frame building that stood on the site
of Monumental Church in the opening decades of the 19th century. This
theater was a center of activity in Richmond during the busy winter social
season. Tragically, disaster struck in December 1811. Stage scenery caught
on fire. The fire spread quickly and engulfed the building. More than
70 citizens, including the governor, burned or suffocated in the melee
to escape. The toll would have been greater without the heroic efforts
of Gilbert Hunt, a slave blacksmith, and others who rescued individuals
from the conflagration.
The fire was so intense that ashes were all that remained of most of the
victims. The remains were enclosed in a brick vault. Richmond’s
civic leaders sought an appropriate way to memorialize the victims and
agreed to a combination memorial and church. United States Supreme Court
Justice Marshall served as head of the committee to raise funds by public
subscription for the project. The church would serve the rapidly growing
Shockoe Hill section of Richmond. Planners considered several designs
for the monumental building, including those by Benjamin Henry Latrobe
and Robert Mills. Mills, America’s first native-born architect,
won the competition in 1812. The building he designed was substantially
complete by 1814.
Mills’ design is a masterpiece of Neoclassicism with four distinct
components. The first is a three-sided portico that shelters the marble
monument to the victims of the fire. The portico functions as a separate
structure to house the monument. It consists of four niches that face
the interior, a ceremonial entrance to the sanctuary, and a ceiling of
ornamental plasterwork. In the center of the portico is the monument itself,
a square marble sarcophagus topped by an urn. The monument on view today
is a careful reconstruction of the original, which had substantially deteriorated.
The monument reflects the racial diversity and racial hierarchy of the
more than 70 victims of the fire, with whites listed on the upper portion
of the monument and African Americans listed below. The second component
of the design, the north and south stair towers, serve as the regular
entrances to the sanctuary, and the elaborate cantilevered stairs provide
access to the second floor galleries.
Virginia Department of Historic Resources
The third component is the octagonal auditorium-type sanctuary topped by a round dome. The first floor of the sanctuary has the original box pews owned by the pew holders. Richmonders purchased pews to raise money for the church, and since most of the pew holders were Episcopal, their affiliation determined the denomination of the church. Pew holders in the church included such notables as Justice Marshall; attorney and prominent property owner John Wickham; and John Allan, the stepfather of Edgar Allan Poe. The large gallery in the sanctuary accommodated the non-pew holders who worshipped at the church. A number of notable persons worshipped in Monumental Church, including the Marquis de Lafayette in 1824. The round dome of the sanctuary is constructed with the Delorme laminated timber method. Mills designed several churches with such domes including those in Philadelphia, Charleston, and Richmond. Monumental is the only one of these to survive. The Delorme dome is similar to one used at Monticello, where Robert Mills studied architecture. On top of the dome is a large lantern.
At the rear of the church is the fourth component of the Mills design, a massive brick tower. The tower contains a large brick niche where the pulpit is located, as well as offices and storage space. Mills designed the tower to support a large steeple that was never constructed.
The ornamentation of the building is full of funerary symbols. On the exterior, the Doric entablature decoration includes lachrymatories (Greek funerary urns). On the interior, column capitols and window moldings are in the form of sarcophagus lids. The Ionic columns flanking the pulpit have upturned torches symbolizing the extinguishing of light. Mills originally intended even more funerary symbolism, such as an unexecuted allegorical sculptural group that was to be atop the portico.
Monumental Church remained an active congregation until 1965, and for a time served as the chapel of the Medical College of Virginia. The building is at present owned by Historic Richmond Foundation, which is restoring it.
|Plan your visit
Monumental Church, a National Historic Landmark
, is located at 1224 E. Broad St. near Capitol Square and the Court End neighborhood. Click here for the National Historic Landmark registration file
. The church is open to visitors on weekends only, May through October. Visitors may purchase a Court End Passport, which includes admission to the church, the Valentine Richmond History Center, the Wick-ham-Valentine House, and the John Marshall House. Fees for adults are $10, seniors/students $7. For information, call the Valentine Richmond History Center at 804-649-0711, or visit the Historic Richmond Foundation
website. Monumental Church has been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey