Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Monumental Church

One of the truly extraordinary structures in Richmond is Robert Mill’s Monumental Church.  It is amazingly simple in concept - an octagon topped with a dome.  This simplicity is appropriate for the solemn purpose of its existence, to memorialize the victims of a horrific theater fire on the day after Christmas 1811.

There are many news accounts about the fire which started back stage and within ten minutes consumed the entire building, killing 72 people including many prominent Richmond citizens including the sitting Virginia Governor.  The victims were so consumed that their ashes were entombed at the site in a brick crypt. 

An interesting side-story mentions slave and blacksmith Gilbert Hunt running to the fire and catching people as they were dropped from the first floor windows.  It is reported that he later fought in the war of 1812 and eventually bought his freedom for $800.

Needing to memorialize the victims of the fire, Chief Justice and Richmond citizen John Marshall led a group to raise money to build a church over the site of the destroyed theater.  Pews purchased by citizens raised the necessary funds for construction.  The designated pew of Chief Justice Marshall is the second box on the left side of the center aisle.

One of the first American-born Architects, Robert Mills won the design competition for the project which was completed near the end of 1814.   Mills studied with Thomas Jefferson and James Hoban before working for Benjamin Latrobe as the Capitol was being erected.  He is most famous for the design of the Washington Monument.

The original design had a few features that were never built.  The largest omission was the ornate tower over the back section.  A heavy brick structure was built to carry the tower’s weight.  This part of the design now seems an odd contrast to the rest of the design.  There was also to be a series of figures over the portico.   This portico is open on three sides and focuses on the podium and urn which carries the names of all fire victims. 

Access is controlled by Historic Richmond Foundation which maintains the building and gives tours by appointment.  Old buildings and particularly the tucked-away spaces can reveal much about the design thought and inventiveness of the time.  Architects who enjoy old buildings are archeologists at heart and try to get into the mind of the designer.  They try to figure out what is original and what may have been changed.

The building is entered through the front portico into the tall main space that has a shallow balcony wrapping ¾ of the volume – but quickly went through the small door panel into the back and down into the foundation space.  This arched space encloses the brick crypt of the fire victims. 

Going up several flights of stairs, the back side of the half-domed alter is visible.  One more flight takes you up to the access panel to the copper dome roof and lantern.  This lantern is centered over the crossing aisles below and brings natural light into the whole space.  There is a series of steps up to the lantern built into the back side of the dome. 

Twenty-eight years ago, I rendered an ink-on-Mylar drawing of the framing of this dome for a historian.  As I recall, the framing is a series of trusses from the outer walls to the compression ring under the oculus and lantern windows.  The curve of the dome takes the stresses from the center to the heavy masonry walls.  It would be interesting to see the early 18th-century construction technology used to build this form.

The main space appears larger than expected from the outside.  The exterior porticos, tall doors, and windows do a good job disguising the true size of the underlying octagonal volume.  The main sanctuary space is quite simple in organization with a raised alter on the north and dual cantilevered stairs to the balconies in rooms on the east and west sides.  The pair of doors at the top is unlike any I’ve seen.  Each pair swings into the main space off of a standard hinge.  However there is a second hinge (an inch into the door) that allows each inner panel to be pushed back into the stair – an early design of panic hardware that allows doors to also swing into the direction of travel.

What is also quite clever about these doors is a simple metal rod on the backside of this second hinge.  When opened, the rod is stressed putting a slight resistance on the door.  After letting go, this rod pushes the door closed – an early design of a door closer.  These doors and hardware items were an obvious response to the concern for fire safety.  During his career, Mills became well-known for his design of fire-safe structures.

Since 1965, Monumental Church no longer holds an active congregation but is a treasure of great historic and architectural importance.  Being 200 years old, it is in amazing shape considering that virtually all of the building and carpentry is original.  I strongly recommend you read the accounts of the fire before going to add a sense of reverence to the visit.


  1. Great story, Mark. Q: wasn't the structure completely renovated several years ago? Is the recent painting a reflection of it needing even more work (beyond normal maintenance)?

  2. Several years ago, the outside stone surface was painted white. I've wondered since then if that was done to reflect the original appearance or to waterproof. Old photos or research may provide that answer. The interior could use some work but is in decent shape considering the age.