Church and State in Early Virginia:
A Tour of Anglican Parish Churches and County Courthouses

Society of Architectural Historians Annual Meeting, Richmond, VA
April 21, 2002

Tour Notes by Carl Lounsbury, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation


02cs05. Lower Church, Southwark Parish, Surry County, 1751-54:

The Southwark Parish vestry undertook the construction of this rectangular brick church in 1751 and work was substantially completed by 1754. In plan and detailing, it is typical of Anglican churches of the late colonial period. The building measures 34 feet by 74 feet. A central aisle paved with masonry ran eastward from the west doorway to an area just short of the altar in the east end. A short north-side aisle ran from the area in front of the altar to the south chancel door in the east end. The pulpit was located on the north wall between the third and fourth window from the west end. Evidence of its location can still be detected in the scars on the wall. As in a few other Virginia churches, the window spacing is not symmetrical on the north and south walls but subtly modulated to account for the placement of the south door and the position of the pulpit on the north wall. The ghosts of the west gallery staircase can also been seen in the southwest corner of the building.

The brickwork detail is typical of late colonial architecture in the area with Flemish bond walls above a rubbed beveled watertable. The compass-heads and jambs of the apertures are rubbed as well as the corners of the walls. Rather than a molded brick frontispiece, the west opening is compass-headed with rubbed-and-gauged brickwork and the south chancel doorway is finished with a flat jack arch.

Following the Revolution and the disestablishment of the Episcopal Church as it was reconstituted, this building like so many others fell on hard times since it was no longer supported by parish taxes levied on every inhabitant. There were intermittent periods of an active Episcopal congregation in the antebellum period. A fire in 1868 left the building in ruins. However, the churchyard remains an active burial site.

02cs10. Isle of Wight County Courthouse, Smithfield, 1751:

In large and sparsely populated counties, public institutions sometimes suffered a peripatetic existence. The county court, for example, often moved or rotated from one tavern or house to another throughout its jurisdiction. Because there were few concentrated centers of population in this plantation economy, many counties found it simply uneconomical to construct permanent brick courthouses, prisons, and clerk's offices for many decades after they were established. Such was the case of Isle of Wight where the courts had met in makeshift quarters for nearly a century after its establishment. Finally, in 1749, Colonel Arthur Smith donated land for the new town of Smithfield on the Pagan River and provided lots to build a new courthouse. With this offer, the magistrates mustered the courage to raise the taxes of their fellow citizens for several consecutive years to pay for a brick building. Erected by William Rand, an undertaker (or contractor in modern terms), the new Isle of Wight courthouse was completed in the early 1750s and served the county for fifty years before a powerful faction persuaded the county to move the court once again, this time several miles south to Boykin's Tavern, where a new courthouse and ancillary buildings were constructed in 1800. Made redundant by the move, the Smithfield courthouse was converted into a dwelling in 1812. The piazza arches were enclosed, the floor levels altered, and dormer windows added to light garret bedchambers. Obscured by these changes and later accretions, the courthouse was restored by the local chapter of the Association for the Preservation Antiquities in 1960. For this work, the APVA hired Lawrence Kocher, an architect who had worked for Colonial Williamsburg as well as designed modernist buildings at the Black Mountain School in western North Carolina.

A T-shaped brick structure with a five-bay, front arcade and a rear apse, the Isle of Wight Courthouse is one of about a half dozen courthouses built in eighteenth-century Virginia to have such features. Both the arcade and the apse can be traced as public building design elements to the first capitol in Williamsburg (the structure that was reconstructed by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in the early 1930s). Both features also have an earlier history in English public building-in town halls and market houses erected in the century following the Restoration. In Virginia, the arcade served as a place for court participants and spectators to gather before entering directly into the courtroom and provided a symbolic face to what would have been a very domestic-looking structure. At the back of the courtroom stood a raised magistrates' platform very similar to the one in the Williamsburg courthouse. In order for the magistrates to communicate with one another, the bench curved in a semicircle. Unlike the Williamsburg courthouse, but evident in the capitol, this curved bench was expressed on the exterior in the shape of the apse. The present fittings are a recent restoration installed by the APVA according to designs supplied by the author. Off to the side were two jury rooms

Despite it being the county seat for less than half a century, Smithfield managed to erect and have survive a complete set of ancillary structures associated with the court. Two lots to the east of the courthouse stands a two-story tavern now known as the Smithfield Inn (c. 1752) which was built by the courthouse undertaker William Rand. Much altered in the early twentieth century with little original woodwork, the tavern probably consisted of a center stair passage with two rooms on either side. Just to the west of the tavern and next to the courthouse is a two-story brick store (late eighteenth century) that has been much altered on the inside. However, the function of the building can still be easily read. The gable end faces the street and the sidewalls originally had no fenestration in the section closest to the street, indicating the position of shelves in the sales room. The rear room was originally a counting room that was heated by a gable-end stack.

Just to the west (left) of the courthouse stands a one-story brick structure with its gable end facing the street. This was erected as a clerk's office (1799) shortly before the court was removed from Smithfield. In the 1790s, the state passed a law requiring each county to construct a fireproof clerk's office. No doubt, this building was in response to that statute. The plinth is laid in 1:3 bond, one of the earliest examples of this pattern found in Tidewater Virginia, which clung tenaciously to Flemish bond long after New England and Delaware Valley builders had employed it in secondary and subservient locations. A few yards north of the clerk's office is a two-story brick building that was erected as the county jail in the last decade of the eighteenth century.

02cs15. Newport Parish Church (St. Luke's Church), Isle of Wight County, c. 1682:

Although the exact date of its construction is unknown, Newport Parish Church, or St. Luke's Church as it became known in the nineteenth century, is easily the oldest Anglican parish church to survive in Virginia. Local tradition holds that the building was constructed in 1632 (at one time there was said to be a brick inscribed with that date floating around the church), but that date is plainly too early for a building of this size, construction, and containing so many classical features (the round-arched tower entrance opening and the artisan mannerist pedimented frontispiece, for example) that do not appear in English parish church architecture until the middle of the century. A more likely date is perhaps some fifty years later in the 1680s, which would tie this building to two other churches (the firmly dated first Bruton Parish Church and the Jamestown Church) that featured similar plans and details. All three churches were nearly twice as long as they were broad, contained a chancel door on the south side, and had a series of buttresses on the sidewalls between apertures.

A three-tiered west tower dominates Newport Parish Church. The difference in the corner treatment and the presence of a compass-headed window in the uppermost stage has led many to argue that it may be a later colonial addition, but this seems unlikely. Unlike many English parish churches whose principal entrances were on the south wall near the west end, Newport Church is entered through the arched entry of the west tower. A reconstructed wicket door in west gable end leads into a central aisled church. Slightly arched mullion windows with Y-tracery light the north and south walls. The upper part of the window jambs was rebuilt in the early 1950s when the building was thoroughly restored and the fanciful interior fittings installed. There is evidence that a chancel screen once existed. The pulpit, benches, and altar rails are loosely based on seventeenth-century English examples but do not bear close scrutiny.

Like all Anglican churches in Virginia, Newport is oriented or set with its altar in the east end of the church, which is lit by a large brick mullioned window four lights wide and divided into three tiers. This massive east-end window was characteristic of church architecture in Virginia until the second quarter of the eighteenth century when builders began to de-emphasize the east end of the church in favor of windows indistinguishable in size and shape from others in the building. A large east window can still be seen in St. Peter's Church in New Kent County (1701-1703). Newport Church, like St. Peter's and the first Bruton Parish Church, had shaped gable parapets. Those now on the church were reconstructed in the 1950s based on ghosts found on the west tower. In form, they are as expressive as the ones that survive at Bacon's Castle (1665), redolent of an exuberance that all but disappears in Virginia brickwork by the second quarter of the eighteenth century. The earliest rubbed work discovered in Virginia is the carved bricks in the tower of the church. Brick quoins were carved to profile and then rubbed to regularize their surface and to bring out color in these bricks. Ovolo bricks used in the stringcourse and around door and window jambs were likewise carved to shape and rubbed. At least those used for the jambs were chosen for their light, contrasting color. This treatment would be elaborated and become the hallmark of brickwork in this region in the following century.

02cs20. Gloucester County Courthouse Grounds:

This group of buildings centered on a public square is characteristic of a number of courthouse towns in the rural counties of eastern Virginia. A complete collection of public and private buildings associated with the county courts, the ensemble represents nearly two centuries of rebuilding, expanding, and landscaping. Any twinge of quaintness is purely modern happenstance as most colonial courthouse grounds were rough and tumble affairs filled with many shabby and impermanent structures grouped in a more haphazard manner.

The two most important structures are the courthouse and the Botetourt Hotel, a large, two-story brick tavern built in the early 1770s. The latter served as a place for hospitality and accommodation for those who had business during the monthly court days through the early twentieth century. In more recent years it has been used as a county office building and museum. In terms of its size, materials, and plan, the Botetourt Hotel is one of the most impressive courthouse taverns to have survived from the late colonial period in Virginia. Despite later alterations, the original plan of the building is still discernible with a number of features associated with the best taverns in late colonial Virginia. The front piazza provided a place for guests to gather and the several doorways led to specialized spaces for entertaining, drinking, and dining. In addition to private lodgings for the tavern keeper, the ground floor contained a taproom and rooms for dining and entertaining. Genteel society convened for balls, concerts, and lectures in the second-floor assembly room with its adjoining card rooms. A suite of bedchambers at the north end of the second floor provided beds for lawyers, litigants, and travelers.

The courthouse (1766) is similar in plan to the one in Williamsburg: T-shaped and built of brick. It originally had a central courtroom flanked by two heated jury rooms. In 1907 the plan was reoriented. The removal of two partition walls allowed for the construction of a larger courtroom. Windows were added to the east and west ends of the building, and a new classical portico replaced the old shed porch. Numerous renovations have obliterated evidence of the earlier courtroom fittings.

Essential for running the county courts were two other buildings-a prison to hold accused miscreants and debtors and a clerk's office, the repository of the county's deed, will, and order books and loose court papers. Like many courthouse grounds, Gloucester contains several generations of these structures. Following a fire in 1822 that destroyed an earlier clerk's office, a new fireproof clerk's office (1822) was erected directly across from the courthouse. In order to reduce the chance of fire, most offices built at this time were required to have brick, tile, or stone floors, vaulted ceilings, and metal shutters as was the case with this structure. Many of these fireproofing measures were covered over or removed when the building was converted to other purposes in the twentieth century.

At the opposite end of the grounds stands a one-room, one-story debtors prison (c. 1810), which replaced an earlier prison for criminals and debtors. Its stout walls and barred windows testify to the effort among court officers to keep those unfortunate residents inside their place of incarceration. The county contracted to build a new two-story brick jail (1873) to hold the growing population of criminals forced to serve time rather than be subjected to physical punishment. Altogether missing from the grounds are the stocks, pillory, and whipping posts, the traditional instruments of public punishment that fell into disuse in the antebellum period. In the center of the southern row of buildings is the clerk's office built in 1896 by the B. F. Smith Fireproof Construction Company of Washington, D. C., a firm that erected nearly every courthouse, clerk's office, and jail in the Old Dominion from the 1890s to the First World War. This building and the colonial courthouse were superannuated with the construction of a new courthouse (1956) just northwest of the original building. This in turn was replaced by a larger building constructed in the 1970s just north of the clustered green.

Standing in the center of this ensemble is the Confederate Monument (1889), an essential symbolic element that appeared in courthouse towns in Virginia between the 1870s and the First World War. The grounds are enclosed by a brick wall erected in 1933 inspired by the colonial walls that were sometimes erected around churchyards such as those at Abingdon Church. This wall was patterned after the one built around the yard of the reconstructed capitol in Williamsburg, thus representing one of the earliest influences of the Colonial Williamsburg restoration in Virginia. Courthouse grounds were rarely enclosed in the colonial period, although a few such as Gloucester had wooden fences in later periods. Needless to say, the paved walks, benches, and landscaping are amenities seldom encountered in the colonial period.

Ringing the courthouse grounds on the outer edge of the traffic circle are series of small nineteenth- and early twentieth-century buildings erected as stores and offices for lawyers and others who catered to the crowds that gathered during court days.

02cs25. Christ Church, Lancaster County, c. 1732-1735:

The most pretentious church built in colonial Virginia, Christ Church, Lancaster is also the best preserved from that era. It is a remarkable coincidence that something of this exquisite nature has managed to survive relatively unaltered since its construction in the 1730s. Paid for in part through the largess of Robert "King" Carter, the building incorporated the best and most costly materials of its day. Unfortunately, no private accounts or vestry records survive to suggest who was .responsible for the design of this finely proportioned, cruciform church which is crowned by a hipped roof with flared eaves

With each wing measuring 70 feet in length, the footprint of the church is big though not exceptionally large. Abingdon Church has more square feet for example. Yet, the unusually tall walls [26 feet] and soaring hip roof create an emphatic, commanding statement. Although one-story in design, the building stands taller than many two-story structures of the period. The openings are scaled to balance the massing of the wall surfaces. The windows measure six feet in width and extend fourteen feet in height and terminate in compass-heads. The three doors on the west, south, and north wings are also proportioned to match the size of the building. The north and south entrances feature gauged-and-rubbed pedimented frontispieces, while the principal west wall frontispiece is crowned by a segmental-arch pediment. All the frontispieces are accentuated by sandstone, probably from the Aquia quarry in Stafford County.

Beneath the vaulted ceiling and whitewashed walls, the entire floor space is taken up with tall box pews with raised panel wainscoting. The pine pews were once painted brown, but that coat has almost completely faded. The two larger or "great" pews in the eastern part of the church near the altar were reserved for important members of the parish. The north great pew was the Carter pew. It was once upholstered on the inside and had a railing around the top for a small curtain to provide additional privacy for the family.

A triple-decker pulpit, featuring a clerk's desk, reading desk, and pulpit with ogee-shaped type or sounding board (once elaborately decorated with painted motifs in the frieze), stands in the southwest corner of the crossing. The soffit of the type once had an inlay outlining a starburst motif. In contrast to the pine used for the rest of the woodwork, the turned balusters, pulpit, and window jambs are fabricated out of walnut. A gallery, standing on slender columns, was built in the south wing of the church to accommodate additional parishioners a few decades after the completion of the church in the mid-1730s.

At the east end of the church is the walnut altarpiece or reredos, which contains the tablets for the Ten Commandments beneath a segmental arched pediment. The tablets are new but the rest of the woodwork around the altar is original including the nicely turned balusters of the communion rail. An eighteenth-century table serves as the present communion table. To the right of the altar is a stone font made in England with cherub heads around the bowl. To the left of the altar is a monument on the floor memorializing John Carter, father or Robert Carter.

The churchyard was altered over the years. The present wall is modern and replaces an earlier one. Behind the east end of the church are three table tomb monuments to Robert Carter and his two wives. Elaborately carved, these monuments were imported from England. The tops are replacements, but the originals can be seen inside the nearby education building.

02cs30. King William County Courthouse, c. 1725:

The county seat for King William retains its rural setting with few modern encroachments. The only element missing from this ensemble is an early tavern, once a center of social activity for the county and a major stopping point along a busy road in the colonial period. At one time, an eighteenth-century tavern stood in a field just south of the walled precinct. At other times, taverns were located to the east and west of the courthouse grounds.

Enclosed within a low, late-nineteenth-century brick wall, the grounds of King William Courthouse contain an amalgam of public structures dating from more than two centuries of occupation. At the center of this collection of brick buildings stands the King William County Courthouse (c. 1725), a five-bay arcaded building crowned by a hipped roof. The exact date of the construction is unknown though it is likely to have built in the ten or fifteen years after an earlier wooden courthouse was declared ruinous in 1722. Laid in Flemish bond with glazed headers with rubbed jack arches and corners, the brickwork is characteristic of the second and third quarters of the eighteenth century. The roof frame consists of a series of king posts, which is one of the earliest surviving of this form in Virginia.

Like Hanover, Charles City, and Isle of Wight County courthouses, the King William courthouse is T-shaped with a central door opening off the entrance arcade into a courtroom. Flanking the courtroom are two small heated jury rooms. In the early nineteenth century the building was altered. The courtroom was extended one bay in length to the north with a fireplace added at the end, the magistrates' platform reconstructed, the jury-room doors moved, and the two doors inserted in the side walls to provide separate access to the clerk's office and jail for court officials. The building underwent major renovations in the twentieth century, first in the 1920s and then again in 1983, the result of which was the removal or altering of earlier fabric.

The ancillary structures that surround the courthouse on the east and west are third and fourth-generation replacements of earlier clerk's offices and jails. At right angles to the courthouse on the west is a one-story clerk's office, built in 1897 following a fire of the previous decade that destroyed many of the county's early records. The brick office incorporates part of an old jail to the south, all of which was incorporated beneath an arcade across the front added in 1928.

East of the courthouse stands a one-story brick jail built in 1890 and extended and modified around 1970. Behind these buildings to the north is a modern administration building.

02cs35. St. Peter's Church, New Kent County, 1701-03; tower 1739-40:

Long overshadowed by the slightly earlier Newport Parish Church in Isle of Wight County, St. Peter's Church is the second oldest surviving Anglican church in Virginia. Like so many other structures, it has been substantially altered and restored many times over the past three hundred years. Like the Newport church, the curvilinear gables at St. Peter's were taken down by the time of the Civil War and were restored in the twentieth century based on ghost marks left on the east side of the west tower.

The building started out as a long rectangular structure, twice as long as it was wide, with a principal door on the curvilinear gabled west end and a subsidiary doorway in the chancel area near the east end on the south side. The original brickwork consisted of oversized bricks laid in irregular English bond with a double molded watertable consisting of a cavetto course above an ovolo one. The bricks were manufactured by Thomas 'Brickwall" Jackson and laid by Cornelius Hall. The bonding turns to Flemish for a few courses on the south side before it reverts to English. Sometime in the eighteenth century, a north wing was added to the building. This was removed in the nineteenth century and in the twentieth century the brickwork in this area was reworked to match the original brickwork. The plan originally consisted of a long central aisle with box pews arranged on either side with the pulpit located on one the long walls near the chancel screen that separated the area of the communion table from the body of the church. The east end is lit by a large compass-headed window subdivided by wooden mullions, all of which has been renewed several times. The large east window is a telltale sign of English parish church design that would be jettisoned within a quarter century of the construction of St. Peter's Church. The two windows of equal size that light the east end of Christ Church, Lancaster would become the norm in church design by the early 1730s, the same time that chancel screens were also becoming obsolete.

The west tower with its arcaded ground floor and pilastered corners surmounted by balls above the cornice was added in 1739-40. The second stage of the tower was used as a vestry room. The tower was erected by contractor William Walker, one the most prolific undertakers of architecture in mid-eighteenth-century Virginia. Walker probably supervised the construction of Stratford in 1738-39 for Thomas Lee and erected Cleve in the mid 1740s for Charles Carter. In 1750 Walker had the contract to rebuilt the burnt capitol in Williamsburg but died before he could undertake the work. Although a few fragments of early window frames survive, nothing of the original woodwork managed to escape neglect in the nineteenth century and vigorous restorations in the twentieth century.; last rev. = 22 Apr. 02 jc