American Architectural History: A Contemporary Reader

By Keith L. Eggener | Go to book overview

Chapter 4
Space
Parish churches, courthouses, and dwellings in
colonial Virginia

Dell Upton

The social space of the Virginia church and the landscape of which it was a part was a dynamic one. It was most effective when people moved from one space to another. The continual reassembly of the community and the constant visible construction and destruction of the social order were the deepest experience the Anglican parish church had to offer Virginians. […] The church was intended as a self-contained fusion of the divine and social worlds. The artificial insularity of ritual space created by the architecture implied that the world of the church was opposed to the world outside. In fact, the church was part of a network of dynamic spaces, each of which used similar means to create differing, but complementary symbolic environments.

Every church was surrounded by a churchyard. Seventeenth-century law required “That there be a certayne portion of ground appoynted out, and impaled or fenced in (upon the penalty of twenty Marques) to be for the buriall of the dead.” A yard was created at the same time as the church itself. The sexton or another member of the parish was employed to “grub” and clean the space around the building, removing most of the trees along with the construction debris, and creating a dirt area surrounding the new building. On exceptionally barren lots sycamores and other trees might be planted for shade. The bounds were then defined. The yards made in 1719 at St. Peter’s Parish church and St. Paul’s Parish upper church were 100 feet square, while the one built by John Moore at the upper church of Christ Church Parish, Middlesex County, in 1733 was 134 feet by 110 feet. Most ranged from 100 to 150 feet on a side. The newly designated churchyard was then enclosed. In the wealthiest parishes, 4½- to 5-foot-high English-bond brick walls with ogival or semicircular copings were built. A good example survives at Blandford church, Petersburg (Figure 4.1). Although much of the wall has been rebuilt, the 163-by-143-foot enclosure is substantially the one called for as part of Colonel Richard Bland’s contract to enlarge the church in 1752. It has semicircular coping bricks; gates, marked by sandstone finials, aligned with the south and west doors; and a large unrepointed section at the north. Such a wall was handsome but expensive, and might cost as much as sixteen thousand pounds of tobacco, or the equivalent of a year’s salary for the minister. Consequently, most parishes, even those that built elaborate churches, elected to build wooden post-and-rail or pale (picket) fences. Truro Parish’s vestry reconsidered its order to build a brick wall around the new Pohick church in 1774, “having just finished two expensive Churches, and a Glebe not yet purchased,” and settled for a post-and-rail fence instead. Cedar, locust, chestnut, and white oak were preferred for the

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