By Mark St. John Erickson, firstname.lastname@example.org | 757-247-4783
12:15 PM EDT, May 8, 2013
When the well-to-do congregation of Ware Parish began planning a new and much bigger church during the early 1700s, they did so with no small ambition.
What the vestry designed - with the help of a now unknown builder - was destined to become one of Colonial Virginia's largest houses of worship. It also represented a radical departure from one of the colony's oldest and most ingrained architectural traditions.
Instead of embracing the Anglican preference for a narrow rectangular plan - and expanding it by adding wings to the sides - they turned to something that was both wider and deeper.
What resulted was a robust, handsomely proportioned brick box unlike almost every other church in the Old Dominion.
At just over 80 feet long, the new building surpassed by several feet the extent of most other Virginia churches. And its majestic 40-foot breadth gave the interior a kind of expansiveness that had seldom been seen before.
"This is one of those rare times when the builders in Virginia dared to span more than 35 feet - and that made Ware one of the largest churches built during the Colonial period," says architectural historian Carl Lounsbury of Colonial Williamsburg.
"But in terms of its proportions, it's nothing like other Virginia churches. What you have in Ware is more like the new wave of Anglican churches designed by Christopher Wren in the late 17th century after the Great Fire of London."
Few of Virginia's Colonial churches extended beyond an unwritten limit of 70 feet, scholars say, because of problems in hearing the sermon from the rear pews.
But in a handful of cases, including Ware Parish, the builders solved the puzzle of size in much the same manner as Wren and his followers in England. Instead of simply lengthening the structure, they increased its breadth by the same proportion.
Later changes at Ware have altered the original 25-foot height of the ceiling and other interior dimensions. Yet the acoustics are still so good that today's sermons carry as well as those of 250 years ago.
"Ware gives you a good sense of what was then sometimes called `a preacher's box,' " Lounsbury says.
"It's a big, open, boxy church in which you can easily hear just about everything that's said . It's less like a traditional Virginia church and more like what we call `a meeting house form.' "
Despite the church's unconventional plan, it still incorporates many of the hallmark traits of Virginia's Colonial building tradition.
Raised from massive, nearly 6-foot-wide footings, its strong Flemish-bond walls measure more than 3 feet in width. The carefully laid joints and clever spacing of the irregular hand-made bricks represent one of the finest surviving achievements of 18th-century Virginia's masons.
Among connoisseurs, in fact, the walls at Ware and nearby Abingdon Church rank among the most pristine to be found in any Colonial structure. "... Ware Church exhibits Flemish bond masonry of the highest elegance and most remarkable preservation," wrote pioneering architectural historian James Scott Rawlings.
Ware's other attractions include the original brick pediments and moldings surrounding its trio of doorways. No other rectangular Colonial church has managed to preserve these distinctive architectural features, scholars say.
Inside, the interior of the structure has changed radically since the sanctuary first opened - probably sometime in the early 1720s.
But even these Victorian additions glimmer with a palpable feeling of age.
When the congregation decided to "modernize" Ware during the mid-19th century, workmen removed the original flagstones and Colonial-era box pews, then raised the floor several steps above its original level.
But little has changed since they re-arranged the seating plan and installed a then-contemporary set of bench pews.
"These `new' pews - as we call them - were put in back in 1854," the Rev. Daniel O. Worthington Jr. says.
"The last major renovation after that was when we enclosed the gallery to make a Sunday school. We put in electricity at the same time."
Copyright © 2013, Newport News, Va., Daily Press