Classical Comments: Monumental Church (By Calder Loth – ICAA)

calder-loth-imgBy Calder Loth
Senior Architectural Historian for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and a member of the
Institute of Classical Classical Architecture & Art‘s Advisory Council.

Courtesy of: the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art


Figure 1. Monumental Church, Richmond, Virginia (Loth)

For this month’s Classical Comments essay, I am departing from the usual pattern of discussing a specific architectural feature or type and am devoting the space to a single building. I have selected Richmond’s Monumental Church not to promote an important historic landmark, but to explore the circumstances that can affect a building’s form and character. Monumental Church is also an excellent example for illustrating the use of symbolism to make a work of architecture meaningful. Too often we fail to appreciate the existence of the amazing repertoire of traditional symbols that we can draw from to lend expression and instruction to a design.

Monumental Church owes its existence to a tragedy. On the evening of December 26, 1811, many members of Richmond’s society were attending a performance in a theater originally on the site. A fire broke out in the second act, destroying the theater and killing seventy-two of the audience, including the Governor. Shock at the loss of life moved Richmond citizens to plan a suitable memorial. Following two days of mourning, the citizens of Richmond and the state resolved to erect a church on the theater site as a permanent functioning monument to the calamity. The competition for the design was won by the thirty-one-year-old Robert Mills, who was then employed in the Philadelphia office of Benjamin Henry Latrobe.


Figure 2. Monumental Church, William Goodacre engraving, 1812 (Virginia Historical Society)

Prior to working for Latrobe, Mills’ architectural proficiency had been shaped by two mentors: James Hoban and Thomas Jefferson. Mills became an apprentice to Hoban while Hoban was overseeing the construction of the White House. More significantly, Mills served as a draftsman for Jefferson, producing ink-and-watercolor drawings of Monticello and a rotunda house for him around 1803. During that time, Mills had access to Jefferson’s extensive architectural library. Unfortunately, Mills’ drawings for Monumental Church do not survive, but we have a record of the ambitious original concept in an 1812 engraving by William Goodacre. (Figure 2) The Goodacre image shows a domed auditorium church fronted by a porch-like portico surmounted by a sculpted figure of mourning. An elaborate, multi-tier steeple rises from the rear of the church. The steeple and the portico sculpture were eliminated from the final design.

As built, the church, nevertheless, can only be described as Avant-guard—a structure unlike anything ever before seen in Virginia, much less the rest of the country. In many ways, it is a synthesis of ideas learned from both Jefferson and Latrobe. From Jefferson, Mills gained an appreciation for domes and octagons, forms that intrigued Jefferson and informed many of his designs. Monumental Church’s saucer dome employs the de L’Orme construction method, which consists of laminated wooden ribs, a system that Jefferson used on both Monticello and the Rotunda at University of Virginia.[i] From Latrobe, Mills was introduced to the use of the newly fashionable Greek orders and details, as well as to non-canonical interpretations of classical moldings, primarily thin Grecian-type moldings in the inventive style of Sir John Soane.


Figure 3. Monumental Church portico (Loth)

Completed in 1814, the building has two distinct sections: the memorial and the church. The memorial is the front portico, expressed as a square shrine-like porch or reliquary sheltering the marble monument to those lost in the fire. The building’s main portion, the domed octagon, is the church, with side entrances framed by diastyle porticos.[ii] Instead of the sculpture shown in the Goodacre engraving, Mills applied a simple pediment defined by thin moldings on the raking angles and acroteria or “ears” at the ends. A long shallow panel is the only decoration in the tympanum. (Figure 3) With its ears, the pediment (and also the window lintels), echoes the form of the lids of Roman and Greek cinerary boxes, or containers for cremated remains. This form is more explicitly used on the interior as we shall see.


Figure 4. Doric of the Temple of Apollo at Delos, The Antiquities of Athens, Vol. III: Chapter X, Plate 1


Figure 5. Portico columns, Monumental Church (Loth)

The order used for the columns of the front and side porticos is based on the Doric of the Temple of Apollo on the Island of Delos as shown in Volume III of Stuart and Revett’s The Antiquities of Athens (1795).[iii] This order’s distinguishing feature is the column’s smooth shaft, with fluting employed in short sections at top and bottom. Stuart and Revett conjectured that the main part of the shaft was left plain because it was covered with tapestry during ceremonies. (Figures 4 & 5) Most authorities now believe that the columns were simply unfinished, and that full fluting of the shaft was intended but never accomplished. Nevertheless, the distinctive appearance of the columns has inspired countless imitations on Greek Revival buildings.[iv] We might speculate that the unfinished character of the columns on Monumental Church may have been an intended reference to the unfinished lives of those who perished in the fire.


Figure 6. Portico frieze detail, Monumental Church (Loth)

The church’s theme of mourning is continued in the portico frieze through the series of bas-reliefs of lachrymatory urns. (Figure 6) These are representations of the small glass vessels usually found in ancient Greek and Roman tombs, vessels into which mourners dropped their tears. The term derives from licrima, the Latin word for tear. Lachrymatory urns are normally in the shape of a small flask with a narrow neck and wide mouth for catching the tears.


Figure 7. Monumental Church monument (Loth)

Sheltered by the portico is the marble monument inscribed with the names of the seventy-two Richmonders who perished in the fire. With its sharply sloping sides and deep cove cornice, the monument is one of the nation’s earliest structures to exhibit an Egyptian influence. (Figure 7) The Egyptian reference is heightened by the bas-relief of the winged sun disk in the cove cornice. In Egyptian mythology, the winged sun disk is a symbol of Ra, the sun god, believed by the Egyptians to be the Sun of Righteousness having healing in his wings, a title later adapted and modified by the Christians. [v]


Figure 8. Monument urn (Loth)

Symbolism abounds on the urn topping the monument. (Figure 8) The urn is in the form of an ancient cinerary urn, also a receptacle for human ashes. The flame issuing from the lid denotes the renewal of life. The downturned flaming torches on either side are ancient symbols of death, denoting the snuffing out of the flame of life. On the face of the urn we see a winged hourglass, a reminder that life is of limited time and speeds by quickly. It is encircled by a wreath of cypress branches, also a symbol of mourning. The theme of grief is reinforced by the two sculpted draped heads with their downcast eyes. The original marble monument and urn suffered extensive deterioration over the years resulting in serious loss of aesthetic and structural integrity. With the use of laser scans, an exact replica was crafted by the firm of S. McConnell & Sons of Lilkeel, Ireland and installed in place of the original in 2004.


Figure 9. Monumental Church interior, view to apse (Loth)

Entering the church through the front portico, we are struck by the horseshoe-shaped galleries enveloping the space and focusing on the apse. (Figure 9) The apse is an acoustical as well as architectural feature meant to project the sound from the pulpit. The arrangement of the room is defined as an auditory or auditorium-form church, which is a pulpit-centered unified space. This form was favored by 19th-century Protestant denominations since the high point of the service was the sermon. Hence, it was important for the congregation to see and hear the preacher clearly. Monumental’s original wineglass-shaped pulpit that towered above the reading desk was removed in a late 19th-century alteration.


Figure 10. Monumental Church interior, view to entrance (Loth)

Looking from the apse towards the entrance, we see an intriguing optical illusion, created by placing the saucer dome on an octagonal base. The thin moldings of the dome’s base glide over the octagon’s reentrant angles forming shadow pendentives. In addition, the effect of the sweeping curved shadows makes the flat walls of the octagon appear as convex curves. (Figure 10) The interior receives additional light from the ring of shallow windows in the dome’s lantern.


Figure 11. Monumental Church, apse column capital (Loth)

More symbols of death and mourning are displayed in the capitals of the two Ionic columns flanking the apse. (Figure 11) Instead of the normal channels between the volutes, Mills placed carved drapery swags, a motif recalling the drapery swags used to ornament catafalques and hearses. As noted above, the downturned torches, seen in the capital’s neck are ancient symbols of death. The stars, on the other hand, are symbols of heaven and eternity, reminding us of the Christian belief of the promise of eternal life after death. The leaves and buds in the balusters (sides of the volutes) are stylized versions of the Mediterranean laurel, an ancient symbol of victory and sometime symbol of eternity. Topping the capital is a modified cinerary box lid with anthemions ornamenting the triangle


Figure 12. Monumental Church, gallery detail (Loth)


Figure 13. Choragic Monument of Lysicrates cresting, Antiquities of Athens, Vol. 1: Chapter IV. Plate VI (1762) [detail]

Mills’ creativity is particularly evident in the gallery columns as well as in the entablature blocks and railing pedestals above each column. (Figure 12) The columns are thin versions of the Delos Doric seen on the exterior, with short sections of fluting at the bottoms and tops of the shafts. The capitals are a Mills invention, consisting of a series of bands below a flattened echinus and an abacus in the form of a cinerary box lid. The entablature block above the capital is a unique composition. A patera, representing the shallow dishes used in the ancient ceremonies of sacrifice, ornaments the frieze. Any symbolism inherent in the curved motif in the architrave is undetermined. Individual too are the three bold dentils and the complex series of compressed moldings forming the cornice. The shallow recessed Gothic panel in the pedestal may be a reference to Christianity. However, the anthemion motif in the ornament atop the pedestal is taken from the cresting of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates as illustrated in The Antiquities of Athens. (Figure 13)


Figure 14. Monumental Church, west doorframe detail (Loth)


Figure 15. Monumental Church, west stair vestibule (Loth)

Similar creativity and imagination is exhibited in the doorframes leading to the side vestibules and the gallery stairs. (Figure 14) Here the classical vocabulary has been abstracted to the degree that it resembles Art Deco ornament of the mid-20th century. With their sinewy lines the double stairs in each vestibule are masterpieces of design and construction. Each flight winds up the curved walls of the vestibule to a landing at the top. (Figure 15)


Figure 16. Monumental Church, crypt vault (Loth)

We must venture in the crypt to see the final piece of Monumental Church’s poignant history. Towards the crypt’s southern end, but not quite beneath the portico, is a large brick vault containing the ashes of those who perished in the fire, whose remains could not be identified. (Figure 16) X-ray examination of the vault indicated that the ashes are interred in two large wooden boxes.

Monumental Church was originally intended to be a non-denominational shrine available for community use. Practicality, however, dictated that it be an Episcopal parish church instead, in which capacity it served until 1965. The church is now owned by the Historic Richmond Foundation and has been undergoing long-term restoration under the foundation’s direction.[vi] The architectural lesson of Monumental Church is that its design is an effective (and indeed early) demonstration of the Miesian dictum that form follows function. In this case, however, its architect utilized traditional forms—an octagon, a dome, and porticoes, to create a distinctive composition for accommodating a particular programmatic use and a special symbolic function. He gave expression to the composition by employing various ancient symbols to both convey and memorialize its tragic history. Finally, using a fertile imagination, he created unique compositions of details that provoke lasting reflection.

[i] Detailed illustrations of the rib construction were published in Philibert de l’Orme’s Nouvelles Inventions pour dien bastir et a petiz frais (1561).
The portico is executed in Aquia Creek sandstone. The main body of the church is brick covered with stucco. The whole structure was originally covered with limewash for a uniform appearance. The portico stone was cleaned of later coatings in the mid-20th century, exposing the stone. The current limewash coating is a recent treatment and is part of the ongoing restoration.
Stuart and Revett made their two engravings of this order from two columns and other fragments found among ruins of what was then an uninhabited Island. They speculated that the columns belonged to a temple dedicated to Apollo. Subsequent authorities have maintained that identity.
It is uncertain whether Mills’ model for the order was Stuart and Revett’s depiction or a similar illustration published in Julien-David Le Roy’s Les ruines des plus beaux monuments de la Grece (1758). Le Roy’s work was a primary source for Mills’ mentor Benjamin Henry Latrobe, and the work was also owned by Mills’s other mentor Thomas Jefferson. Mills could have had access to the book from either Latrobe or Jefferson. Jefferson owned volume 1 of Antiquities of Athens but not volume III.
Like nearly all churches, Monumental Church evolved in appearance through alterations and additions over the years. In the late 19th-century, the original apse arrangement was changed to accommodate the more ceremonial Episcopal liturgy. Golden oak choir stalls, priest’s chairs and desks, and altar were installed. Stained-glass windows replaced the original clear glass panes. A Sunday school wing was added to east side. Following the church’s deconsecrated, it was determined that Mills’ original scheme was more important than the later changes, and the long-term restoration of its original design was begun.

Holding Up A Tradition – Interview with Jeffrey L. Davis

An icon of antebellum architecture is rising again in the South, this time in the suburbs.  Columns fill a nostalgic niche and sell houses.
From:  LA Times Online Magazine
Written By:  Ellen Barry, Times Staff Writer
October 11, 2004


MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C., October 11, 2004 — Five miles from Charleston’s historic downtown, off a long row of gas stations and drive-through hamburger restaurants, around the corner from the Bi-Lo supermarket, the Old South is being built again. At I’On, a luxury subdivision that is scheduled to be finished in two years, ceiling fans revolve slowly on ornate two-tiered sleeping porches. Front doors are dwarfed by towering colonnades. Garages have been replaced by tiny Doric temples that fit neatly over sport utility vehicles.


When Jeff Davis toured the neighborhood one recent afternoon, expressions of suffering and delight flickered over his face in rapid succession. He suffers to see the principles of classical architecture betrayed by overeager suburban builders:  With uneven plinths, botched astragals, sawed-off little capitals. The delight is less complex: These are good days to be in the column business. White columns have always had a hold on the Southern psyche. Plantation owners stood them up in rows, like miniature Parthenons, at remote farmhouses. When Scarlett O’Hara’s beaux lolled against Technicolor columns in “Gone With the Wind,” their image was secured as the last word in grace and beauty.


And today, during an unprecedented burst of building in the South, columns are, once again, going up everywhere.  Both builders and home-buyers have been swept by nostalgia for a long-ago small-town life, and the architectural detail that goes with it.  John Wieland, who owns one of the region’s largest home-building companies, says his purchases have “really gone crazy,” increasing by 20% last year. Builders know this secret about columns: They sell houses. “It’s hard to put into words, but it’s a pretty profound effect,” said Macky Hill, design coordinator at I’On. “It’s something that must be buried deep in our DNA.”


Seventeen years ago, when Davis decided to start his company, Chadsworth’s 1.800.COLUMNS, he found himself drawn into the world of Renaissance architects like Giacomo da Vignola, who sought an ideal mathematics underlying all beauty.  Mr. Davis studied the optical illusions the Greeks developed — the slight tapering and barely perceptible bulge that fool the human eye into seeing the column as straight. It was a wood business then, full of artisans and trade secrets. Columns were built like barrels, out of long wooden staves with interior joints that locked together, then turned on huge lathes that dropped long curled shavings off the side. “I have a thing about columns. I like the feel of them,” said Davis, 43, whose company is based in Wilmington, N.C. “When I touch my knuckles on them, I like to know what they’re made of.”


These days, most columns begin as a gloppy liquid, something like cream of wheat. A great change swept over the industry about 15 years ago, when manufacturers found a way to build fiberglass columns that would not rot or soften. One of the composites used at the MillCast factory, in Alabama, was engineered for rocket missile casings.
In an industrial park outside Pell City, MillCast workers pour a mix of resin, marble dust and shredded fiberglass into a long, thin mold that latches shut. The mold begins spinning slowly, at an angle, forcing liquid up and back into a smooth cylinder. After about 10 minutes, the mold can be opened to reveal a shaft with a sweet, chemical smell, as hot to the touch as freshly baked bread. When it is cool, and sanded to a uniform smoothness, the column is wrapped in foam and laid in a long, thin box. Workers are shipping out 500 columns a day, and even that is not keeping up with demand, said Britt Russell, sales manager for MillCast. Construction of new homes in the South has broken records this year — during one month this spring, the number of new homes built in the South almost matched the combined total in the Northeast, Midwest and West.


Much of the new construction has followed the national trend of New Urbanism, in which builders recreate an old-fashioned streetscape, complete with double-stacked porches and town squares, on tracts of suburban land. The most direct way to signal this new traditionalism, builders say, is columns, which can cost as little as $100 for a slim, simple design to more than $10,000 apiece for ornate or enormous models. “Spend a couple hundred dollars on a set of columns and [home-buyers] fall in love with them,” said Vincent Del Donna, general manager of Architectural Products by Outwater. “They don’t fall in love with sheetrock.” Outside Atlanta — whose original antebellum architecture was famously obliterated by William Tecumseh Sherman — brand-new antebellum construction is a thriving industry. When Cathy Kahn turned off the highway into Ellard Village in Alpharetta, she was charmed by the graceful double staircases and the elegant columns at the doors. She imagined sitting outside on summer evenings and chatting with her neighbors.


“It feels, in a way, like you’re living history, that you are bringing some of that Southern charm and gentility back,” said Kahn, 40.  “It just has a feeling of peace. That was an era where they just enjoyed life.” This principle has been taken to its logical extreme at I’On, where historic-looking homes feature the deep porches and tall windows of colonial Charleston and Savannah. About a third of its 762 planned homes, which sell for $400,000 to $2 million, are built; scores more stand half-finished on newly cleared land, naked skeletons of plywood and Tyvek wrap. Peggy Orange’s fluted Ionic columns, with pillowy scrolls and egg-and-dart moldings, are so grand that her friends jokingly ask her when she’s going to install the ATM. Gary O’Neil’s carport is a miniature temple of handsome Doric columns and a shallow pediment. Joe Meli, who owns several nightclubs in the area, chose cream-colored columns 2 feet in diameter and 24 feet high — four Doric fiberglass jobs that cost $56,000 altogether, came in two pieces and required the assistance of an auto-body specialist, who sanded down the visible seams until they disappeared.   For most people who drive through I’On, though, the columns do not stand out as individual objects. Instead, they dissolve into the backdrop of a more graceful past — something ephemeral that tugs at the heartstrings. Hill, who oversees I’On’s design scheme, belongs to a family that owns one of the oldest surviving plantation houses in South Carolina.  He can enumerate the fine shadings of snobbery that the Charleston elite attached to columns (they were modest before the Civil War, when entrenched and interrelated families genteelly hid their wealth; it was after the war that the huge ones began to appear, the muscular commentary of new-rich industrialists).



But no explanations are necessary, Hill says, when people stand before a row of columns. “They just like it,” Hill said.  “It’s like when you look at a pretty person…. The overall gist of it is people are just attracted to them.”
Six years into its existence I’On signals hundreds of years of instant history, with its brass lanterns and vintage post-office boxes. Homeowners here are issued architectural guidelines that describe temple construction from 1500 BC, & enumerate the “anatomy of a great porch,” including iced tea, recumbent dog and “smooching swing.” The aesthetic has proved successful with buyers like Gary O’Neil and his wife. Back in New Hampshire, they prepared to buy a home in Charleston by renting “Gone With the Wind” and the television mini-series “North and South.” Their home at I’On is surrounded on all sides by handsome Doric columns. O’Neil is as far from Southern aristocracy as anyone could be: An advertising executive, he grew up in housing projects in Lawrence, Mass. He gets no end of enjoyment out of his friend Meli’s huge creamy columns. Every now and then he tries to persuade Meli, 49, who also grew up in a working-class Massachusetts neighborhood, to install a doorbell that plays the theme to “Gone With the Wind.” “Can’t you just see the ladies with hoop skirts drinking lemonade, while the boys are out shooting clay pigeons?” said O’Neil, 57, in an approximated Charleston drawl. “It’s hilarious! I love it!”

Families like the O’Neils and the Melis continue to stream into the South from other parts of the country. They are taking advantage of all the attributes of the New South — cheap land, cheap labor and cheap money — but they are also looking for a lifestyle that lives in their imagination. On a recent morning, Helen Clem, an interior decorator who retired to I’On from Connecticut, sat on her porch recalling the powerful effect “Gone With the Wind” had on her when she watched it as a girl. Something about it — the way they held on to their elegance — made her think: That is what I would like to have. Her desire was not fulfilled until four years ago, when she stood on a pile of dirt at I’On and decided to take a chance. She now looks out through a row of six Doric columns to the ring of homes that stand around a man-made lake. Their porches create an unbroken colonnade that, from this distance, could have been there for a hundred years. She gives a small, sweet smile of satisfaction.