Richmond’s 200-Year-Old Wedding Gift

 

DSC_1476Preservation is a funny word. It conjures images of something frozen in time, protected under glass or shut away in a museum. We’re not interested in hermetically sealing history. Our mission is about restoring the bridges that connect our city’s yesterday with our city’s tomorrow. Our goal is to help protect historically significant structures and pay it forward to future generations by letting them experience that history firsthand.

We save buildings that matter. Part of our mission is to find structures with historic, cultural or architectural significance and make sure they stick around. Typically we find properties that check off one or two of those boxes. Once in a while, a very special place checks all three.

In terms of historic preservation, Monumental Church is a triple threat.

Not only is the 200-year-old church a masterwork of architectural accomplishment, it literally stands as a one-of-a-kind monument to the past. It marks a moment in Richmond’s history like no other building in the city. Once you learn the story, you immediately realize that downtown just wouldn’t be the same without it.

Today, Monumental Church is a jewel in the crown of Richmond’s Court End. It has become an attraction for tourists, history buffs and couples eager to exchange vows beneath its majestic dome. But at the turn of the 19th century, crowds flocked to the spot for a different reason. They came for shows at the Richmond Theater, a popular venue that thrived during the busy winter social season. Performances were regularly packed with a mix of locals, dignitaries and distinguished guests.

Unfortunately, it was a full house on the night of December 26, 1811, when a broken lantern set some scenery ablaze. Fire quickly consumed the wooden building and 72 people (including the sitting governor) lost their lives.

From the ashes of that tragedy, Monumental Church rose as a memorial to the souls who perished. The building was built with funds raised by Chief Justice John Marshall and became a gathering place for the city to remember, honor and heal together. Unlike many of the city’s other monuments, the building at 1224 East Broad Street also served a practical purpose. It was a functioning house of worship that hosted active congregations through 1965.

In addition to its place in our city’s cultural history, the building itself is an important work of architectural accomplishment. Constructed in 1814, Monumental Church is recognized as one of the earliest and best examples of Greek Revival architecture in the United States. Robert Mills, America’s first native born architect and architectural pupil of Thomas Jefferson, was the man behind the design. Mills designed several churches topped with the Delorme dome (inspired by a similar feature at Monticello), but Richmond’s Monumental Church is the last surviving example in the nation.

Monumental Church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as a National Historic Landmark in 1969. Since acquiring the iconic property from the Medical College of Virginia Foundation in 1983, Historic Richmond has spent several million dollars on its restoration. Over the past three decades, we have stabilized the roof, restored the grounds, installed HVAC, and repaired and painted the sanctuary walls, woodwork, and pulpit. The original marble monument to the victims was relocated to storage and we had an exact replica produced.

Today, Monumental Church is more than just an immaculately renovated reminder of Richmond’s distant past. Today, it helps create Richmond’s future… one kiss at a time. Every year it comes alive as a unique backdrop for weddings. Dozens of couples choose to start their new lives beneath the dome in front of family and friends. Thousands of guests fill the pews as they did for the last two centuries. And with each exchange of vows, the landmark fulfills its destiny as a monument to hope and renewal.

Monumental Church stands as one of our greatest successes and the clearest example of what Historic Richmond does best. We find those buildings that matter and we find a way to make them matter even more.

 

 

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