Richmond Theatre Fire, Monumental Church: Tragedy, United, Stewardship
People, Places and Preservation
An Update on Monumental Church
In Richmond, we like to debate the past. What stories shape us as a community? What stories reflect our soul as a community? What stories must not be forgotten? What buildings and places help us tell those stories to ourselves and to future generations?
Few, if any, places tell us more about ourselves as a community than Monumental Church. Few, if any, have a more important story to tell to future generations than this National Historic Landmark.
On December 26, 1811, over 600 people packed into the Richmond Theatre, more than 6% of Richmond’s entire population. Families, neighbors, and visitors were full of Christmas cheer and the holiday spirit as they enjoyed what was to be the last theatrical production of the season. The Placide and Green theater company, had just lost a celebrated member – Eliza Poe, mother to Edgar Allen Poe. While preparing for the second act, a pantomime entitled “Raymond & Agnes: or, the Bleeding Nun,” a chandelier ablaze with candles knocked into the scenery and set the stage on fire.
When the initial sparks fell on the stage, the audience thought it was lighting effects. However, the scenery quickly began to burn and the fire spread rapidly. An actor yelled “the house is on fire!” and panic began. Everyone rushed to get out of the burning building as the fire intensified and the theater filled with thick black smoke. Those on the stage and in the gallery had their own exits. Those sitting in the boxes had a single exit through narrow passages and a single stairway, that quickly collapsed under the weight of the evacuating people.
Official records identified 72 people who perished in the chaos and conflagration. Men, women, children, Black, white, free and enslaved. It was a catastrophic event that affected almost everyone in Richmond and it was the deadliest urban disaster in the United States to have occurred at that time in history.
But with the horror of those who perished also came tales of heroism – most notably of those saved by the enslaved blacksmith Gilbert Hunt and Dr. James D. McCaw. Hunt found a ladder and placed it against the wall, while McCaw smashed through a second floor window and teamed up with Hunt to save a dozen women before jumping himself. Hunt then dragged McCaw to safety, creating splints for McCaw’s mangled leg and binding his wounds.
All but one of those individuals who perished in the fire were interred together in a common crypt that is located underneath the church. Monumental was designed and constructed to house the crypt and with the monument to these individuals as a focal point under the front portico. Every fire victim’s name is etched on the monument.
Completed in 1814, Monumental was designed by architect Robert Mills, best known for designing the Washington Monument. Monumental remains one of the earliest and best examples of Greek Revival architecture in the United States, and is one of the first American monuments to incorporate Egyptian motifs. Within Richmond, Monumental Church’s architectural significance is considered second only to the Virginia State Capitol.
In 1983, Historic Richmond acquired Monumental Church and has worked diligently to preserve and restore Monumental Church as one of Richmond’s premier architectural landmarks. Historic Richmond continues to maintain this unique place as a nondenominational, deconsecrated space ideal for group events, educational programs and historic tours.
Monumental Church, Today: Protect, Preserve.
With a building of Monumental’s significance and age, preservation maintenance and restoration work are ever present.
For several years, Historic Richmond has been planning a high priority project to address exterior coatings issues and to improve accessibility to Monumental. When completed, this project will install a permanent ramp at the west portico entrance and recoat the entire exterior of the building with a specialized KEIM coating.
Currently, wheelchair accessibility is provided only at the west portico by way of a temporary lift that must be moved into place, while other visitors access Monumental through the front portico entrance. The installation of the permanent ramp at the west portico will include ADA-compliant pathways, signage and hardware and will incorporate recommended site drainage for that portion of the site. With the completion of the ramp, the west portico entrance will become the primary entrance for visitors. Historically, the east and west portico entrances were used as primary entrances, while the front portico entrance was used only for special occasions. In anticipation of this project, Monumental’s west stairwell was recently restored with the generous assistance of Mrs. Patsy Pettus.
Monumental’s exterior shows signs of biological growth, salts, rising damp, and discoloration. It has been more than 18 years since its exterior stucco was last painted. Due to the specialized nature of the KEIM exterior coatings, we worked with architectural conservators from the Philadelphia office of Building Conservation Associates Inc. to identify exterior coating issues and recommend how to address and repair them. We also are working with Quinn Evans Architects to develop plans for the ramp. With a building of Monumental’s architectural significance, this project is complicated and requires a substantial amount of advance planning.
Advance planning for the project began in 2018 and continued through 2020. Design work began in 2021 and we hope to have finalized construction drawings soon. Because the project will require favorable weather conditions and scaffolding of the entire building for at least six months while accommodating our schedule of weddings and special events, we anticipate preliminary construction work beginning in early 2022 and construction work beginning in earnest in the second quarter of 2022.
These high-priority projects will help keep Monumental Church alive, in active use, and relevant to the needs of the people and the communities that surround it.
With a building of Monumental Church’s architectural importance, nearly everything must be custom designed and done to the highest standards, making these projects expensive and complicated.
Our goal is to raise over $600,000 to support this restoration project at Monumental Church.
We are delighted and grateful to have been approved for a matching grant from Mary Morton Parson Foundation!
Every day, Historic Richmond preserves, protects, and promotes the historic buildings and places that make Richmond unique, beautiful, and authentic. Your generosity and financial support are vital to sustain Historic Richmond’s preservation, revitalization and advocacy for this and other historic properties. We need your help so that buildings and places like this can share their power with generations to come.
We hope you will take this opportunity to re-invest in our important work by making a gift today. We truly could not do it without you!
To learn more about the Richmond Theatre Fire, and Monumental Church, please visit: