Abingdon Episcopal Church

The front of Abingdon Episcopal Church on Rt.17 in Gloucester County. (Dave Bowman / Daily Press / March 17, 2008)

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.