'Timeless' church reflects 300 years of changes

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.