By Mark St. John Erickson, firstname.lastname@example.org | 757-247-4783
11:58 AM EDT, May 8, 2013
When the pious parishioners of Abingdon Church arrived for Sunday services in the mid-1700s, they stepped into one of the most breathtaking architectural spaces in Virginia.
Erected nearly a century earlier, the house of worship had risen from the fertile fields of Gloucester County to become one of the colony's earliest brick structures. Its prominent bell tower and eye-catching Jacobean lines moved diarist William Byrd to describe the building as "beautiful."
By the late 1740s, however, industry and fortune had combined to swell the parish's wealth and population. And in 1751 the vestry, pressed to replace a sanctuary that had become far too small, commissioned a now unknown builder to undertake the construction of what would become one of Colonial Virginia's largest and most impressive churches.
Nearly 250 years later, that monumental yet strikingly simple structure remains virtually unchanged on the exterior. Scholars say few other surviving examples of Colonial brickwork can match the state of preservation found in its warm, well-crafted Flemish-bond walls.
Inside, the church embraces its congregation with a space so dramatic and so carefully restored that its minister, the Rev. Theodore R. Haddix Jr., often experiences the feeling of walking in the footsteps of those who came before him.
And that connection reminds him of how much the parish of the 1750s sacrificed, he says, in order to erect what still impresses 20th-century visitors as an extraordinary expression of religious conviction.
"It was an amazing architectural accomplishment - and an exceptional statement of faith," he says, glancing into the bright, expansive realm created by the arms of the cruciform.
"Most of the people who worshipped here would have lived in homes that looked meager compared to this. And when they stepped in through these doors, they must have done so with an overwhelming sense of amazement."
Abingdon's builder broke little new ground with the design of his 3,600-square-foot structure.
But he did show what a prosperous parish could do to elaborate upon the details of an established architectural tradition, Colonial Williamsburg historian Carl Lounsbury says.
The building represents one of the last expressions of the Virginia cruciform plan that began with Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg in 1711 and found its greatest example in Christ Church, Lancaster County, during the early 1730s.
Supported by 25-foot-tall walls, its ceiling rises to a breathtaking height, producing an unusually lofty space illuminated by high arched windows.
"It's the sheer size of it - the height of those walls - that gets your attention," Lounsbury says.
"Those 4 or 5 extra feet make it seem much more vertical than the other churches. Bruton is short and squatty compared to Abingdon."
That feeling of ampleness continues in the building's elaborate details, which include molded-brick pediments over the west, north and south doors and rubbed-brick surrounds at the windows.
The windows themselves, like the arched doors at the west entrance, still incorporate the original fluted pilasters on each side of their frames.
Inside, an enormous, elegantly detailed altarpiece spans the church's east end. Topped by a broken triangular pediment, this reredos - as it is called - extends a full 15 feet in width and measures 17 feet tall.
Four black tablets hang within the space, bearing the words of the Ten Commandants and two prayers inscribed in golden letters. Above them, rising in the center of the pediment, is a finely carved pineapple form mounted on a graceful classical urn.
"Abingdon is a particularly good example of what you can do when you have money," Lounsbury says, describing the congregation's efforts.
"It would have been just as easy to put in simple window surrounds, for example, but instead you get these elaborate pilasters. It's the kind of detail you don't find in other places."
Abingdon's grandeur dimmed with the disestablishment of the Anglican church following the Revolution.
Though the structure never fell into ruin, it had no stable congregation during the early 1800s. And when worship resumed in 1826, the building underwent the first in series of repairs and renovations.
Wrecked by Union troops, who stabled horses in the church during the Civil War, the sanctuary endured some of its most radical changes during the late 1860s. But the installation of new pews, new floors in the aisles and a new vesting room in what had been the altar space merely made way for an even more dramatic change in 1897.
Working under the direction of Richmond architect Marion Dimmock, the congregation raised the floor by nearly 3 feet and installed a coffered ceiling decorated with dark red paint and Gothic Revival details. They moved the altar forward from the east wall, sealed off the tall windows behind it and raised the floor in the chancel two steps more.
Eventually, small vestibules rose behind each of the doors, giving the parishioners better control over the cold but cramping the once-open space still further.
"What they had was a dark Gothic interior that was completely foreign to the Colonial walls on the exterior," says restoration architect Joseph Dye Lahendro.
"It was very dark and very mysterious - and very Victorian - where what had been there before was bright, open and uncluttered."
Fifty years later, the church underwent a modest redecorating campaign to undo some of the earlier changes.
But it wasn't until 1980 that its leadership, faced with mounting problems in the roof and ceiling as well as an increasingly threadbare expanse of carpet, decided to conduct a more thorough architectural investigation.
Guided by Lahendro's intensive research, they identified such original surviving features as the reredos, two portions of the pulpit that had been separated and moved - and the virtually untouched galleries in the north and south wings of the building.
Clues found under the paint and behind the plaster helped determine the original locations and shapes of the box pews - and confirm the age of several Colonial panels and pieces that some thrifty workmen had reused.
Under the floor, the Richmond-based architect sifted through the debris of more than 230 years of upkeep and change, uncovering the original configuration of the paving stones and the aisles as well as the joist pockets for the pews.
Then he put everything he had learned into a small scale model that showed what Abingdon might look like if it was restored.
The price tag for the transformation topped $600,000, he says -not to mention the additional expense of a custom-designed organ.
And what the parishioners would get in return was something far simpler, starker - and more alien, almost - than the rich, eye-pleasing Colonial Revival interior that many of them had seen at Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg.
"They knew Abingdon was wrong inside - that it had been changed drastically over the years - and they wanted to restore it because of its historic value. But it was still a huge decision for the church," Lahendro says.
"My intention was to interfere with the original experience as little as possible, and they trusted that judgment to keep it very clean and very simple."
Now, visitors step directly through the doors into a lofty, quietly dramatic space that extends from end to end without interruption. Bright light spills across the altar space from the flanking windows, which have been recut and restored in the east wall.
Though some accommodations to the modern Episcopal service have been made, such as altering the height and seating arrangements within the box pews, the sanctuary now looks much as it might have appeared when the Colonial congregation flourished.
Only the glass-walled vestibule at the west door hints that nearly 250 years have passed since those worthy churchgoers of old attended Abingdon's first service.
Climb up the winding stairs of either side gallery, in fact, and the new parts of the building appear to blend seamlessly with its best-preserved portions.
From that vantage point high above the nave, it's not hard to imagine yourself sitting down to share a worn wooden bench with one of Gloucester's wealthiest Colonial-era families - or propping your feet up alongside one of the African-American mammies that tended the children exiled to the back row.
"Some people think you can worship in almost anything - and to a certain extent that's true," says David Peebles, the long-time head of the church's restoration committee.
"But we decided we had a sacred trust to the previous generations -and to the glory of God - to restore this church to its original state.
"Now it's about as true a restoration as we could make it without having more original material."
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