Thursday, April 5, 2012

Downstairs with the Dead

The dead people outnumbered the living four to one.

We were in the crypt underneath Monumental Church when it occurred to me how many more of them there were than us.

After a recent lecture at the Library of Virginia, here, I'd had a chance to sign up for a tour of the church built on the site of the Richmond Theater fire in 1811.

I'd always been curious driving by the building on Broad Street and here was my chance to see what it looked like from the inside.

When it was built in 1814, the congregation was shocked by its modernity (for the time) and keenly aware of how plain it looked.

And it still looks very unadorned with no ornamentation, no stained glass windows or elaborate sculpture.

As someone who grew up going to Catholic churches, it was downright stark. And lovely in its simplicity.

The color scheme of salmon walls, gray pews and a deep blue altar is original and based on paint analysis so I knew I was seeing the interior as it would have looked in the mid-19th century.

I found it fascinating that the congregation used only the east and west doors, except for at Easter when everyone entered through the front door.

Designed by Robert Mills, who also did the Washington Monument as well as several other octagonal buildings, the design incorporates all kinds of  funerary and Egyptian symbols as a tribute to the theater dead.

Of course like any city project, the funding ran out so the steeple never got added and there's no statue in the portico.

But who needs a steeple when you have a crypt in the basement?

After a perilous walk down a narrow staircase, we were in a low-ceilinged, dirt-floored subterranean space with two mahogany caskets holding the charred remains of the 72 people who died at the theater that night in 1811.

The large bricked crypt didn't just hold the dead, though; it was also part of the foundation of the church.

Beams and joists sat atop the brick crypt to support the floor of the church above.

As I walked around the crypt, I was surprised to see a half dozen folding chairs in a semi-circle at the far end of it.

Seance, perhaps? It would be a convenient place to commune with the nearby dead, I would think.

There was also a door that connected to the infamous underground tunnels around Capital Square.

Our guide postulated that both insane patients from the hospital as well as sneaky politicians used the tunnels to move around out of sight.

On our way back upstairs I saw a small, old wooden box on a mantle labeled "Monumental Church Endowment Fund."

Perhaps dropping something in might have guaranteed me an invitation for the next seance.

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