By Mark St. John Erickson, email@example.com | 757-247-4783
11:07 AM EST, November 12, 2012
Sometime in the fall of 1712, a gang of Williamsburg brickmakers began firing tens of thousands of bricks for what would become one of colonial America's most indelible landmarks.
Completed three years later, Bruton Parish Church has long been celebrated as the shrine where a dozen royal governors prayed and Washington, Jefferson and Monroe knelt to ask for guidance.
Especially since its 1930s restoration — and dating back to its renewal for the 300th anniversary of Jamestown in 1907 — millions of pilgrims have visited the ancient church, drawn by its enduring connection to the nation's birth and Virginia's crucial role in the Revolution.
But after two wars and 297 years, the stately structure so venerated today has strayed far from its original appearance.
In a new book commissioned for Bruton's tricentennial, Colonial Williamsburg architectural historian Carl R. Lounsbury describes decades of alterations during the 1700s and the century that followed — plus a modern restoration that dressed a compromised interior in colonial garb instead of recreating its period form.
"There's this widespread impression that Bruton Parish Church is a timeless thing that was built fully formed. But we now know there were major changes every 20 years or so during the colonial period and more in the 1800s," he says.
"The longest time the church has remained unchanged is from the 1930s until now — and what we're looking at is a restoration that reshaped the colonial plan to fit a modern Colonial Revival aesthetic."
A history of alteration
Bruton's long story of change began in November 1712, when Lt. Gov. Alexander Spotswood — in response to the builder's request for more money — cut 4 feet from both of the wings funded by the colony.
Frustrated by the House of Burgesses' refusal to appropriate more cash for a structure he designed, Spotswood warned of the problems that might result from making the cruciform church smaller.
His prediction came true almost immediately as both the town and the number of burgesses grew, prompting the construction of a gallery in the south wing only 5 years after the church was completed.
A year later, a second gallery was built on the south wall in order to accommodate the "boys of the parish." It expanded by 12 more feet in 1744.
So persistent was the need for seats that the House of Burgesses — which had swelled by more than 50 members since the church opened — finally agreed to add another 25 feet to the structure in 1752.
Thrice more the church would undergo major changes, adding an organ loft to the north wall in 1756, another gallery on the north side of the church in 1761 and — long after being shamed by a new bell tower at Hampton's St. John's Church — a steeple in 1771.
"This is a church that grew organically — almost higgly piggly — and not symmetrically the way that later Colonial Revival architects would have wanted it to," Lounsbury says.
"They were responding to the messiness of life — and they were perfectly willing to crowd things, interrupt sight lines and add something unbalanced if they felt they had to."
Struggle and change
Space was no longer a problem after the capital moved to Richmond during the Revolution.
But following the disestablishment of the Church of England in 1785, the once wealthy and populous parish struggled to pay its bills.
Bruton sold off most of its land in 1813 and cashed in its silver 15 years later. It sold its furniture in 1839 to help finance a far-reaching remodeling project.
Dividing the sanctuary in two, the church laid out a new Sunday school in the west end of the building, then turned the pews around to face the altar relocated to the west side of the crossing. It demolished all the original 18th-century woodwork except the west gallery and altarpiece.
Blacks were consigned to their own gallery in 1852, when they not only had to crowd into the new seats above the north door but also get there via a separate outdoor entrance and stairway.
"That was so they could go directly into the gallery without having to step foot into the church," Lounsbury says.
The first rebirth
The 1800s also brought such changes as a colorful Gothic paint scheme and a stained-glass window placed prominently over the Duke of Gloucester Street entrance.
But eventually the "many and lamentable" alterations rued by church member Cynthia Beverley Tucker Coleman — who co-founded the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities in 1889 — gave way to a growing affection for Bruton's past.
Initiated by fiery rector Rev. W.T. Roberts and completed by his successor, Rev. W.A.R. Goodwin, in 1907, the first restoration of Bruton was a national campaign that drew support from such figures as industrialist Andrew Carnegie, former President Theodore Roosevelt and British King Edward VII.
Its architect was Virginia-born J. Stewart Barney, whose love of history and training at the Ecole des Beaux Arts resulted in several projects boasting what Lounsbury calls "artistic verve swabbed with a veneer of historic references."
Barney resurrected Bruton's 1700s interior plan but also was merely inspired by rather than dedicated to recreating the building's colonial details. That led him to install a great but inappropriate vaulted ceiling over the chancel and transform the flat-headed arches over the south and north doors into round ones.
"That sort of thing would have collapsed in the colonial era," Lounsbury says.
"But in 1907 they could do it — and to the Beaux Arts sensibility of balance and symmetry it must have looked pretty good."
Buiding today's church
Despite his lapses, Barney had a lasting impact on the church and the surrounding town.
It was he who first suggested that — if Bruton could be restored — why not all of Williamsburg?
Thirty years later, the pioneers who would carry out that vision had raised the bar for historic preservation dramatically when Goodwin asked former Restoration architect William G. Perry to help plan Bruton's second rebirth.
But the cost of unanticipated masonry and structural repairs soon forced them to take on Colonial Williamsburg as a financial, planning and construction partner, leading to a careful study of the building but also divided responsibility for its exterior and interior.
Driven by CW President Kenneth Chorley's worries over "an improperly restored public building," the foundation lavished attention on the outside, returning the steeple, roof and brickwork to their colonial appearance.
Inside the church, Perry defied the evidence found, introducing such elegant yet out-of-place elements as a plaster cornice, a symmetrically placed organ loft and two wing galleries that never co-existed. He also left out such distinctive colonial features as the galleries of 1721 and '62 for fear of making the space crowded and unbalanced.
More departures came in the pews, which were based on surviving evidence and Virginia precedents, then reconfigured so the congregants could face the pulpit in the modern fashion. Only later were the pews in the wings refitted with historically correct seats that wrapped around the walls of the boxes.
"It seems to me that if we tell the public frankly that they are not eighteenth century and give perfectly good reasons for why they are not, then no criticism can be directed at either the church or Colonial Williamsburg," Chorley wrote, arguing that Bruton explain the lapse in a guidebook.
What resulted was a compromise from the start, one that combined the demands of modern worship with colonial detailing and a Colonial Revival aesthetic.
Yet after nearly 75 years, it now ranks as a landmark in its own right.
"It's all very nicely done and very well-resolved. But it's not the way that it was," Lounsbury says.
"Perry's ingrained Beaux Arts sensibilities clouded his judgment."
Go to dailypress.com/brutonchurch to see images of the church and its 1930s restoration.
Copyright © 2013, Newport News, Va., Daily Press