Bruton Parish Church is as storied a building as any in Williamsburg, with a history of idealistic restorations and later revisions. Carl Lounsbury describes the evolution of this living church.
Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Bruton Parish Church is one of Colonial Williamsburg’s most identifiable landmarks, an anchor in the center of Duke of Gloucester Street, which is the town’s main drag. But when you look at the face of the old church, you might be seeing less of colonial history and more of the history of the men who have undertaken its restoration. Carl Lounsbury is an architectural historian and he joins us today to talk about the book he wrote about Bruton Parish Church called “Bruton Parish Church: An Architectural History.” Carl, thank you for being here today.
Carl Lounsbury: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Harmony: Well before we get started talking about Bruton Parish Church specifically, I wanted to think for a minute about churches in general. It seemed to me in reading the book that the church, as a building, is a special type of architectural landmark because of the way it gets used in society. It’s something that generation after generation uses.
Carl: Well just like old houses, churches get changed with each generation. New fashion comes in, new ways of conducting services, new ideas about the form and finish of the church. These things undergo the same sort of fashions as domestic architecture.
There are architectural attributes that you associate with public buildings, either civic buildings like courthouses as well as ecclesiastical structures like churches. They have certain features you don’t see in domestic architecture in this area, like what we call compass head or what they call compass-headed windows or round or arched windows. You don’t see them in domestic architecture and you see it in civic architecture and, of course, the windows at Bruton are compass-headed.
They’re also enlarged in scale. They’re about 5 feet across and 14 feet high so you look at the building, you think it’s a one story building, but in fact the walls are two stories in height and they just sort of scale up the windows to make them larger. Of course the other features that you see on that church is the tower and steeple which sort of gives it away today as a church, but in fact was very late in coming to Bruton Church. It wasn’t built until 1769 through 1771 so it wasn’t there for the first 70 years of the existence.
Harmony: So the church that we see today is not the first church?
Carl: Well it is the second parish church that was built. The first one was built in the early 1680s, and it lasted for about 30 years. It was systematically pulled down when the new church opened its doors in 1716. And that 1716 church is what we see today, although it has changed considerably since that time. It expanded once in the 1750s when the town grew, it expanded to the east by 25 feet and then the tower was put on in 1760s as well. It also has been changed on the inside any number of times.
Harmony: We know a bit about what the exterior of the church looked like in those early days as well. It was made of brick, but it was every possible permutation of brick, every possible finish of brick.
Carl: Well, the church was built at a time of a changing aesthetic in Virginia brickwork and Virginia architecture. It was moving away from a more exuberant style of brickwork with the curvilinear gables and niches and buttresses that you saw in the first church to what they called a “neat and plain” style. So they really, instead of using modulation of the wall openings to create a sense of presence, what they did was they subtly modulated the colors of the bricks to give emphasis around the openings.
For example, the arched openings have rubbed bricks around the sides, slightly different uniform redder color than the field of bricks and the corners also have these rubbed bricks. One thing also that has changed is that the church may have had those shaped gables that the first building did. We know in 1742 that there was an order to take down the gable ornaments, whatever that meant, and redo the gables and that disappeared, so it may have looked a lot different than it does today.
One last little detail on the outside that’s different today than it was in the 18th century is that the door openings on the north and south wing walls had flat heads instead of arched heads. Those are changed in 1907 when the architect decided that that’s what they should look like. I don’t think there was any physical evidence for them, but they put them in there.
Harmony: Let’s catch up to that moment in time in 1907. The church sees a lot of wear. It goes through two wars and it changes a lot along with Williamsburg society. It got a bit dilapidated and then in 1907 it undergoes its first restoration, and this is the idea that I think is interesting.
We come back to it a lot on this program, but it fascinates me that a lot of times we undertake these restorations thinking that we’re keeping to the period and we have the most noble instincts in mind that we’re going to honor the original intent and the aesthetic of the creation of it, but we can’t help but give those restorations a little bit of the accent of our own time.
Carl: Absolutely. Well the building changed about every 20 years in the 18th century and we now think of it as a timeless 18th-century period piece but in fact it didn’t reach its present form until the late 1760s, early 1770s and so there’s this sort of high water mark in that decade of the early 1770s when there were lots of people here, it was crowded and this was the sort of the state church of Virginia.
But after that time with the removal of government to Richmond a lot of people left, the government left, and the support of the provincial government, or in this case the state government, disappeared. The same thing happened when the church was disestablished in the 1780s. So the Episcopal Church, as it now is known, had to support itself instead of the ability to tax everyone who lived in the parish.
So Bruton was able to hang on, but just barely in this respect, but eventually they made compromises, they divided the building into Sunday school and sanctuary, but eventually they sort of gathered steam, they became increasingly wealthy and the population grew in the late 19th century so that they were able to make repairs.
By this time the church was over 150 years old. The brick work was crumbling in places and they tried to keep it in control, but you can see still that they weren’t able to make major changes because their purse was so small. Eventually by the late 19th century there’s this wave of nostalgia for the colonial period. And by the beginning of the 20th century, there was this idea that the church should be restored to this notion of this 18th-century grandeur that it once had and they had to raise money for it. And the way to do that before there were foundations and the like is that ministers went up north and asked rich people for money. I mean instead of having the Carnegie or the Rockefeller Foundation, you simply asked the individual themselves and that’s what William Goodwin, who was the minister starting in 1903, was charged to do and he went up and asked for money.
But what really pulled it together was hiring an architect. This architect put together some plans and along with Dr. Goodwin they created what they thought was the 18th century interior, but what in fact, as you mentioned, was that it was their idealized view of the 18th century
Harmony: What are some of the other restoration elements that were included at that point that are more of a reflection of the turn of the century values –19th century values – than 18th century values?
Carl: They had an idealized view of the 18th century. They thought everyone worshiped there. In fact, there was very pious people at the time and there were people who were less religious and but the way it was kind of cast it seemed like, you know, everyone was religious and that was not the case.
There was also an idea that much of the fittings were the best materials. I recall reading in the letters between Dr. Goodwin and some advisors and he wanted mahogany pews thinking that because the members of the gentry were worshiping there, they would have had mahogany whereas no church in Virginia had anything of such extravagance.
So you do see an idealized view of the 18th century that gets transformed by this design aesthetic of what we call “colonial revivalism,” to make everything symmetrical, to make everything resolved proportional as well as symmetrical, whereas in the 18th century that building kind of grew higgly-piggly. So they had this kind of idea that the church should look like it was part of one piece of architectural design when in fact it just grew.
Harmony: That 1907 restoration with W.A.R. Goodwin as minister and J. Stewart Barney as architect doesn’t survive very long. Goodwin tries to go back and have a do- over with the architect firm of Perry, Shaw, and Hepburn later in the restoration. What does he re-do when he goes back and looks at it again?
Carl: Well, Barney is an interesting character. His ideas were sort of a little more on the extravagant side and some of the detailing that he did were, as I mentioned, was over the top. Just more elaborate than anything we would see in an 18th century church from knowing from both documents and from surviving material.
Eventually, Dr. Goodwin, who then led the restoration of Williamsburg with the Rockefeller restoration project realized that what he had done 30 years earlier was part of a more idealized view of the past and I think he gradually understood and he also saw how precise and conscientious the architects were of the restoration. They would go to great deal of detail to tease out the kind of information that the fabric of the building would reveal looking at documents. The kind of things that Barney did not do in 1905-1907 so he understood by that time that mahogany pews would have been pure fantasy.
And once they got into the church and striped out the plaster on the inside that basically the entire interior was stripped away and the ground was taken up and they realized how fragile the brickwork was so there was a lot of repairs that were necessary that you don’t see in the building just to keep the walls standing and that cost a lot of money to do that kind of work, but it preserved it by doing that, that substantial intervention into the fabric so that’s what how it started growing like that.
Harmony: I feel like Bruton Parish Church is a special building in a lot of ways, but its special in particular because it’s still fulfilling its original function, it’s still a living church.
Carl: It is indeed. It is an old church suited for 20th century Episcopal worship. It is not an 18th century church restored to its 18th century configuration. In fact, I think if the Episcopal congregation’s predecessors came back from the 18th century and saw this, they wouldn’t know what to make of the church.
They certainly would recognize the form of the Book of Common Prayer but they would not understand many of the ceremonies that have been introduced into the Episcopal Church, most those being 19th century rather than 18th century and so that’s a big difference. For example, many people in the 18th century, more than half of them sat with their backs to the altar or their backs to the pulpit. They just sat in pews that had three or four sides with benches around three or four sides. It was a church that was called an auditory church; a church for hearing the word of God being preached.
So there are all kinds of compromises and that’s the great thing about a living church is that each generation will change it to suit its form of worship and when that stops it becomes fossilized and too many of the surviving churches that I look at up and down the eastern seaboard, the best surviving buildings are often the ones that have no congregation anymore. They’ve been left high and dry or the congregation has died off and so they’re great as architectural artifacts, but there’s nothing left to them as a living church.
Harmony: Carl, thank you so much for being our guest today.
Carl: It’s my pleasure. Thank you.