'Timeless' church reflects 300 years of changes

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.