Abingdon Episcopal Church

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

    "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."