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St. John's Church

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1741, Richard Randolph, builder (current transept). 1772, northern nave addition. 1829, nave extension. 1833, tower. 1866, rebuilding of tower. 1874, additional entrances. 1877, apse. 1904–1905, rebuilding of tower, replacement of apse with sanctuary and side rooms. 1970–present, restoration, James Scott Rawlings, restoration architect; Vernon Perdue Davis, consultant. 2400 block E. Broad St.

St. John's Church is a frequently visited site and one of the city's most famous buildings. Here on March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry stirred patriots' souls with his “Give me liberty or give me death!” The original section was built in 1741 as a small parish church in what was then Henrico County. In its earliest years it was known as the Upper Church, or the church on Richmond Hill. It was the largest public building in town for many years and had the only public burial ground until the city opened Shockoe Cemetery in 1826.

The building has grown in every direction, including up. The original structure is now the transept. Like many other Virginia country churches, it was a simple frame rectangular building with a double-pitched roof, built with the traditional east-west orientation. By 1772 more space was needed to serve the growing town. A nave was added to the north side of the church, transforming it to a T-shaped plan. This was the configuration when Virginia's second Revolutionary convention met here to avoid conflict with the British colonial government in Williamsburg and Patrick Henry gave his famous address. Surprisingly, Henry's words were not recorded until 1835 when his biographer, William Wirt, interviewed witnesses.

Since then, the church has expanded into the building we see today. The nave was extended, a tower built and then rebuilt, an apse added and then replaced with a sanctuary. Beginning in 1970, restoration has refined the changes, and research has clarified the metamorphosis of this historic site.

The churchyard is a fascinating history lesson, boasting the graves of two governors as well as those of John Marshall, George Wythe (a signer of the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Jefferson's law professor), and Elizabeth Arnold Poe (Edgar Allan Poe's actress mother). In 1799 the city purchased two lots on the north side of the block to augment the public burial ground and has maintained the churchyard ever since. Several other buildings populate the churchyard, including a frame parish hall (1876), a brick schoolhouse (1835), a brick furnace house (1929), and one of Richmond's most charming small buildings, the keeper's lodge (c. 1885), now used as a gift shop. It is a white-painted frame Carpenter's Gothic miniature with exuberant windows and buttresses that belie its size.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Richard Guy Wilson et al.
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Citation

Richard Guy Wilson et al., "St. John's Church", [Richmond, Virginia], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/VA-01-RI64.

Print Source

Buildings of Virginia: Tidewater and Piedmont, Richard Guy Wilson and contributors. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, 196-198.

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