On December 26, 1811, a stagehand hurriedly raised a lit chandelier into the rafters of the Richmond Theater and ignited one of the worst theater fires in American history. Within minutes seventy-two people were dead, including the governor of Virginia. When the ashes cooled, a brick vault was constructed to hold the remains of the dead, and the city began a campaign to raise a memorial on the site. Robert Mills, who had studied with both Latrobe and Jefferson, won the commission—beating out Latrobe—with this design for an octagonal auditorium church fronted by a monumental porch. An enormous tower based on the Lighthouse of Alexandria was planned
The ornament expresses the building's somber program, inside and out. A monument on the porch lists the names of the dead; overhead is a ceiling medallion by Daniel Raynerd, coauthor, with Asher Benjamin, of The American Builder's Companion (1806). The interior is a brilliant space, flooded with light from the triple windows and cupola. A graceful balcony curves around seven sides of the interior. The apse is set back behind the pulpit, which is accentuated in the all-white space by its dark green marbling. A window out of sight at the top of the apse provides mysterious light from above. Two oval stairwells flank the auditorium. Their cantilevered stairs elegantly rise to the balcony, and their banisters trace a dark curve against the white ceiling. John Marshall, the marquis de Lafayette, and Edgar Allan Poe's family all worshiped here. The original congregation moved to St. Paul's in 1845, but Monumental remained in use as a church until 1965. The Medical College of Virginia Foundation donated the building to the Historic Richmond Foundation, and it was restored between 1976 and 1981. No viable current use has been found for it, so few visitors get a glimpse of the interior. An overwhelming, emotional space, Monumental Church is both simple and complex—a city's heart-wrenching memorial to deceased friends and relatives.