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St. John’s Church Historic District
and St. John’s Episcopal Church

St. John's Church

St. John's Episcopal Church
City of Richmond
Department of Community Development

St. John’s Church Historic District is the site of the founding of the City of Richmond, and the neighborhood contains a fine collection of historic buildings.   St. John’s Episcopal Church gave the district its name.  The church is important in the history of the nation, the state, and the city.  

In the 1730s, William Byrd II founded the town of Richmond.  Byrd is thought to have been inspired by the hilltop view from what is now Libby Hill Park at the southeast corner of the district at North 19th and East Franklin Streets and to have named his new community Richmond, after Richmond Hill in Surrey, England.  The English Richmond Hill is on the banks of the Thames on a site similar to Libby Hill in Virginia on the banks of the James River. For many years, Libby Hill was commonly known as Richmond Hill.

Byrd commissioned the surveyor William Mayo to lay out the town of Richmond in 1733.  Mayo’s 1737 plan included all of the St. John’s Church Historic District west of 25th Street and south of Broad Street.  Mayo set out the town in a series of “squares” or blocks consisting of four half-acre lots bounded by right-angled streets.  Mayo’s plan followed the standard pattern of town planning used in colonial Virginia and established the grid and axis (orientation of the street) continued in expansions of the town plan to the west and north.

In 1741, Byrd donated a half square at the northwest corner of East Grace and North 25th Streets for construction of an Anglican Church for Henrico Parish.  St. John’s Episcopal Church was the only Episcopal Church in Richmond until 1814.  Its site at the highest point in the colonial town is still one of the loftiest in the modern city.   The name of the historic district and the neighborhood derive from the church, as does much of the east end of Richmond, which to this day is called Church Hill.

St. John’s Church is nationally significant for its associations with the American Revolution. Patrick Henry delivered his famous “Give me Liberty or Give me Death” speech in the church on March 23, 1775.  He called to arms the over 100 Virginia colonial leaders gathered in the church in March 1775 for the Virginia Convention, including Patrick Henry, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, and Peyton Randolph.  These delegates passed Patrick Henry’s resolutions, and within a month the shots fired at Lexington and Concord signaled the beginning of the Revolution.    

The original portion of St. John’s Church is its southernmost section oriented to the east in the tradition of the Anglican Church.  Dating from 1742, the building is the oldest wood-frame place of worship in Virginia. Construction of the nave in 1773 expanded the church to approximately its present configuration and reoriented the sanctuary.  A number of alterations took place in the 19th century, including the addition of the present church tower and steeple in 1896, which replaced an early 19th-century tower and steeple.  The brick schoolhouse in the southwest corner of the churchyard was one of the first schools for black children in Richmond.

St. John's Church historic

Historic postcard of
St. John's Episcopal Church
Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries

St. John’s Churchyard was the first public burial ground in Richmond.  A 1799 addition of two lots expanded the churchyard to a full city square.  The burial ground was full by the middle of the 19th century.  Distinguished citizens from Richmond’s early history lie within the churchyard, which contains many notable examples of early funerary art. The tall retaining walls around the church are evidence of the extensive regrading of streets in Richmond during the 19th century.

 In the 18th century, Dr. Richard Adams obtained much of the property in the district, after which Richmonders referred to the area interchangeably as Adams, Church, or Richmond Hill.  Adams’ descendants expanded the Richmond grid north of Broad Street and east of 25th Street early in the 19th century.  Despite the grid expansion, the St. John’s Church neighborhood remained relatively isolated and undeveloped into the early decades of the 19th century.  Houses from this period include the Anthony Turner House at 2520 East Franklin Street, a fine side-hall brick house dating from 1809.  That same year Dr. John Adams built the brick double houses at 2501 East Grace Street.   Carrington Row of 1818 at 2307 East Broad Street is a handsome group of row houses with stucco facades rendered to create the illusion of stone.  The Ann Carrington House of 1810 at 2306 East Grace Street and the Hillary Baker House of 1816 at 2302 East Grace Street are also important early brick buildings.  Little development occurred between 1820 and 1840.  The Morris Cottages, a pair of wood frame vernacular cottages at the northeast corner of 25th and Grace Streets, are a notable exception.

Grace Street

Grace Street
City of Richmond
Department of Community Development

The neighborhood experienced a period of tremendous growth and prosperity in the 1840s and 1850s.  This period saw the construction of Greek Revival row houses and town houses characterized by entrance porticoes with square or round Doric or Ionic columns and stepped parapet roofs. Rear or side porches also typify the residential architecture of these decades.  Examples of the Greek Revival vary from modest buildings throughout the neighborhood to large town houses and mansions.  Two impressive center hall mansions with large two-story rear porches overlook Main Street and the James River at 2611 and 2617 East Franklin Street.  The 1849 Hardgrove House at 2300 East Grace Street is a good example of a large, three-story Greek Revival town house.  Like others from the Greek Revival era, this home has the original outbuilding and a kitchen/slave quarter in the rear.  More modest two-and-one-half story buildings are scattered throughout the district, many of them in the 2800 block of East Grace Street. 

In the late 1850s, the Italianate style with its bracketed cornices and full-width porches began to appear in the neighborhood.  The Taylor-Wilkins House of 1859 at 2209 East Grace Street is an excellent example of an Italianate mansion from the antebellum period.  The house has a massive bracketed cornice and cupola.  A one-story full-length porch on the street front has a larger counterpoint in the massive two-story verandah on the rear that affords a magnificent view of the James River, Shockoe Valley, and Tobacco Row areas below.

Over the course of the 19th century, religious congregations built several houses of worship in the neighborhood.  In 1859, the Catholic Diocese of Richmond constructed the fine Gothic Revival St. Patrick’s Catholic Church at 215 North 25th Street to serve the growing Irish immigrant population in the east end of Richmond.  The Richmond Hill Retreat Center at 2209 East Grace Street from 1879 was originally the Monte Maria Convent.  The Romanesque chapel of the convent is a restored part of the present-day retreat center.  Third Presbyterian Church of 1874 at 2517 East Broad Street is a modest example of the Gothic Revival style, since 1987 adaptively reused as condominiums.  

In 1851, the City of Richmond established a system of municipal public squares and acquired Eastern Square (now Libby Hill Park).  In the decades that followed, attractive residences began to appear on Franklin and 19th streets across from the park.  The city expanded Libby Hill Park to its current configuration in the 1870s. City Engineer Wilfred Cutshaw designed and implemented improvements in the 1880s and designed the Confederate Soldier’s and Sailor’s monument in 1894 at 29th and Libby Terrace. Richmond artist William Ludwell Sheppard did the sculpture at the monument.  The city acquired Taylor Hill Park, east of 21st Street and north of Franklin Street around 1890, and Cutshaw modestly improved it over time. 

Libby Hill Park

Confederate Soldiers & Sailors Monument
in Libby Hill Park
City of Richmond
Department of Community Development

St. John’s Church Historic District survived the Civil War undamaged.   In the decades after the war, the neighborhood witnessed its greatest period of development.  Row houses and town houses typified building in this period. Most are of brick, with a few frame buildings interspersed. Many of the district’s streetscapes date from this time. 
During this period, the Italianate became the predominant architectural style of the neighborhood. The many Italianate buildings include rows, double houses, and detached town houses with ornate bracketed and modillioned cornices, and full-width porches.   Most porches are of wood with turned posts and scroll saw brackets.  

A smaller but significant number of buildings have cast iron porches, many the products of Richmond iron foundries.  These cast iron porches have delicate posts combined with brackets and balustrades decorated with ornate geometric and/or botanical designs.  Excellent examples of Richmond cast iron porches are on the St. Patrick’s Rectory of 1869 at 213 North 25th Street and 2818-2820 East Grace Street, which dates from 1899.

In the 1880s, the Queen Anne style with its projecting bays and lavish ornamentation became popular in the district.  The finest grouping in this style is the Mann-Netherwood block at 2601-2619 East Broad Street from 1888 by the builder and a stonemason for whom the block is named.  These buildings have ornate wood porches and facades that combine stone and brick.  

St. John house

Cast Iron Porch
City of Richmond
Department of Community Development

Development of the neighborhood was largely complete by 1900, although some 140 buildings date from the first decades of the 20th century.   These include a number of residences in a simplified Colonial Revival style, several two-story commercial buildings, some industrial buildings, a few apartment buildings, and several schools.  Noteworthy from this era is the Church Hill Bank at 2500 East Broad Street. J. Bascom Rowlett designed this fine Neoclassical building clad with Indiana limestone in 1929.  Architects Carneal and Johnston’s Bellevue School of 1913 at 2301 East Grace Street is a fine example of the Gothic Revival.  Marcellus Wright Sr. designed the Georgian Revival St. Patrick’s Catholic School at 2600 East Grace Street. 
The district contains two notable buildings from the mid-20th century.  The Nolde Bakery building at 2523 East Broad Street dates to around 1920 and has a 1953 Moderne façade.  The WRVA studio by Phillip Johnson at 21st and Grace Streets is a Modernist landmark from 1970.  

St. John’s Church Historic District became the center of Richmond’s historic preservation movement in the 1950s.  In 1956, a group of Richmond preservationists organized the Historic Richmond Foundation, which bought and rehabilitated a number of neighborhood buildings.  In 1957, the City of Richmond created the Richmond Commission of Architectural Review and designated St. John’s Church as the first Richmond Old and Historic District.  St. John’s Church is one of the best-preserved 19th-century neighborhoods in the United States and is a testament to this long-standing preservation effort.

Plan your visit

St John’s Church Historic District is roughly bounded by North 21st St. to the west; E. Broad Street and Marshall Sts. to the north; North 32nd St. to the  east; and E. Franklin St. to the south.  St. John’s Episcopal Church, a National Historic Landmark is at E. Broad at 25th Sts. Click here for the National Historic Landmark registration file.  The district is a residential neighborhood accessible to visit by vehicle or on foot and has a tour of homes every December.  St. John’s Episcopal Church is open for public worship and offers tours of the historic building daily for a small fee.  Call 804-648-5015 for information, and visit St. John's Church website. St. John’s Episcopal Church and a number of buildings in the district have been documented by the National Park Service's Historic American Buildings Survey. The Richmond Hill Retreat Center (the former Monte Maria Convent) is open daily for services and for tours and retreats by appointment by calling 804-783-7903.  Visit the Richmond Hill website.

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