Writer Brandy Brubaker of Richmond BizSense recently wrote about the Historic Richmond Foundation and its decision to bring history back to life in the restoration of a 200-year-old church. The article is titled Saving History Does Not Come Cheap.
The Monumental Church has significance to the community because it was originally constructed as a symbol of hope from a terrible disaster. On December 26, 1811, a fire destroyed the Richmond Theatre where hundreds were inside for a play. Nearly 600 people had packed the theater for a triple-bill benefit for the theatrical company.(Richmond Times-Dispatch) As the curtain rose on the second act, a candle on a chandelier brushed against the backing of the stage scenery.
The flames spread and one of the actors raced to the front of the stage and shouted, “The house is on fire”. A later Supreme Court opinion written by Oliver Wendall Holmes noted that such an exclamation, when not true; is not a form of protected free speech. In this instance, it also led to people being crushed in a mob-like exit.
As the fire grew, it didn’t take long for the sap-filled pine roof to catch fire. As patrons rushed to escape, the rising flames and poor design of the building, coupled with the heavy smoke; made it difficult to escape. At least 72 people died including the governor of Virginia, George W. Smith and U.S. Senator Abraham B. Venable who had been named President of the Bank of Virginia.
On that fateful night, it was difficult to determine who had died in the fire. Everything was so burned beyond recognition. Officers went door to door to try to determine who had not come home from the night before, in an attempt to ascertain all the victims. The remains of the fire victims were buried together in a crypt underneath the church.
Then Chief Justice of the Virginia Supreme Court, John Marshall, led a campaign to build a church on the site as a tribute to the victims. Architech Robert Mills, who formerly studied under Thomas Jefferson, was hired to design the church. He would later be hired to design the Washington Monument.
The church was built and held its first service on May 4, 1814. The church counted Chief Justice Marshall and Edgar Allan Poe among its members.
Over the years, the church fell in disrepair. It also sustained tremendous water damage. It was deeded to the Medical College of Virginia which later turned it over to Historic Richmond. Several years ago, the Foundation conducted an ultasound on the brick crypt and determined that there are still two boxes which are believed to contain the remains of the fire victims.
The Foundation then made significant repairs and the church is now used as a popular wedding venue. There are still remaining repairs to be done that include such things as landscaping, roofing and painting. A marble monument at the church bears the names of those who died in the fire.
The newspaper story attached also details acts of heroism which led to the majority of attendees escaping the fire, despite the single narrow staircase to the box seats; as well as only having three exits from the building. The front door also opened inward which contributed to the difficulties of escape. Now, fire and building codes would never allow such design and construction.
DID YOU KNOW that the fear of vegetables is called lachanophobia? It is estimated that approximately 30% of Americans report real symptoms at the mere mention of certain vegetables that include nausea and shortness of breath.
And for pic o’ day: