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Spiritual Awakening

Two of downtown's landmark churches get new life.


Monumental Church, in the 1200 block of East Broad Street, was built as a memorial to 72 Richmonders who died in a theater fire the day after Christmas 193 years ago. It has undergone a startling, $1.3 million exterior restoration, all but transforming the appearance of the Robert Mills-designed structure. Mills (1781-1855) was our nation's first native-born professional architect and later designed the Washington Monument and the U.S. Treasury Department building (pictured on the $10 bill).

Second Presbyterian Church, completed in 1848 at 13 N. Fifth Street, introduced Gothic Revival to Richmond. It was designed by the influential New York architect Minard Lafever (1797-1854) and miraculously survived the evacuation fire in 1865 during the Civil War. Over the past two years, it has received long-overdue structural enhancements and an exterior restoration that replaced many of the building's heavily deteriorated, brownstone supportive and decorative features. Long-lost architectural detailing is now crisp again.

Monumental, a former Episcopal church (which ceased housing an active parish in 1965), is a remarkable survivor that still holds its own confidently on the Broad Street hillside amid the burgeoning buildings of the VCU Medical Center.

When it was built in 1811, it was a spectacular landmark near the crest of the hill and signified the shift in residential population from Church Hill westward.

Mills, who had been a protégé of amateur architect Thomas Jefferson, won a competition for the memorial project, beating his teacher, B. Henry Latrobe, an Englishman who brought his considerable architectural talent to the new nation.

With an eye to a limited budget, Mills designed a two-part building. The memorial structure on the street front takes the form of an open pavilion in the Greek Doric order. It was constructed of Virginian Aquia stone (the same material used on the White House). Within this loggia, Mills placed a monument, capped by an urn, engraved with the names of the 72 who perished.

Immediately behind this pavilion is an octagonal sanctuary that is covered by a low dome roof. This is capped by a monitor, which allows daylight to flood the room. There are few more transcendent interiors in the region.

Under the direction of the Historic Richmond Foundation, which now owns the building, and funded in part with a challenge grant from the Save America's Treasures program of the National Park Service, phase one of this four-part restoration project has been completed. On the exterior, a Portland cement covering was removed and the brick walls exposed. The newly applied stucco should allow the building to breathe better.

And the entire building — both the pavilion and the sanctuary — was covered with an off-white lime-based paint.

This paint job is where the restoration is startling. The warm, gold-to-brown hues of the Aquia stone made the exterior, in certain light, as luminously special as the interior. The paint was added in the name of historical accuracy, but a sublime patina has been lost to something that looks flat and pasty like a white cake frosting.

The Carrara marble memorial marker itself, which had deteriorated tremendously, will be recast in Ireland in the coming weeks in a stone quarried in Greece. The William Byrd Branch of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities is underwriting much of the cost of this project.

Three more phases to the overall restoration are in the works over the next two years. These will tackle mechanical systems, interior finishes and, on the exterior, landscaping and lighting. John Milner Associates of Alexandria is architect for the project.

Over at Second Presbyterian Church, a brick and brownstone construction, the stone was beautiful but disintegrating. Quarried in upstate New York, it was akin to the brownstone that fronts buildings up and down the streets of old Manhattan and Brooklyn. It had deteriorated to the point that the sanctuary's roof itself was on the verge of collapse. The large, downtown congregation faced what all homeowners discover when it comes to repairs — one thing leads to another. But they bit what became a $3 million bullet.

A new copper roof was applied to the building, stone parapets and crenellations replaced, and window frames and sills reworked.

But the star of the restoration, overseen by Commonwealth Architects, is newly quarried stone imported from Kirkhen, Germany. Using archival photographs from the Valentine Richmond History Center and pattern books by 19th-century English architect A.C. Pugin, oaks leaves and crown of thorn motifs have been restored to the church tower's finials. The building's silhouette now pops from the cityscape.

Historic Richmond Foundation and Second Presbyterian are to be applauded for their steadfastness as stewards of their respective architectural treasures.

As upper downtown's character has evolved over three centuries — from residential in the 19th century, to retail in the 20th century, and now in the 21st century mostly institutional and governmental (ironically moving somewhat back to residential), these religious structures have been unwavering anchors. They prove that some things transcend retail trends, lifestyle shifts and the almighty dollar. These restorations are not just Christmas presents in which our entire community can delight, but they signify major investments for the future, aesthetic soul of the city. S

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