Facilities of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House
One thing hastens into being, another hastens out of it. Even while a thing is in the act of coming into existence, some part of it has already ceased to be. Flux and change are forever renewing the fabric of the universe, just as the ceaseless sweep of time is forever renewing the face of the eternity. In such a running river, where there is no firm foothold, what is there for a man to value among all the many things that are racing past him?
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (Book 6:15), translated by Maxwell Staniforth.
WITH STRUCTURES erected in the eighteenth, nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries, in architectural styles ranging from Georgian to Greek Revival to vernacular, a historical perspective is essential to appreciate the rich material-culture heritage of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House. Click on the names below for an introduction to our congregation’s facilities.
The churchyard of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House1 lies in that portion of Alexandria, Virginia, generally known today as Old Town. It is in the "Old and Historic Alexandria District" a historic preservation area created by the City of Alexandria in 19462. It is also situated in that portion of Old Town that was designated a National Historic Landmark District by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1966. Properties in this particular portion of Old Town are subject to regulations designed to preserve the area’s historic architectural integrity. Oversight as to adherence with these regulations is the responsibility of the City of Alexandria’s Board of Architectural Review (BAR).
The block of Old Town Alexandria that includes the churchyard of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House is bounded by the present-day streets of Fairfax (to the east), Wolfe (to the south), Royal (to the west), and Duke (to the north). The northern half of this block, consisting of lots 82 and 83, lay in the original town of Alexandria as platted in 1749 and were auctioned by the town’s trustees to Hugh West on behalf of George West in December of that year. The southern half of the block, composed of lots 90 and 91, is the location of our churchyard. The lots became part of the town of Alexandria with its first territorial expansion in 1763 and were initially sold by the town’s trustees to George Johnston. The churchyard consists of the interior (northern) halves of lots 90 and 91. The exterior (southern) portions of these two lots include the yard of Elliot House, now part of the Meeting House churchyard as well, and those lots on which are situated residences that face Wolfe Street and the parking lot of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church at the corner of Wolfe and Royal streets.
On July 12th 1773, the interior halves of lots 90 and 91 were sold by Richard and Eleanor Arrell to the Rev. William Thom, the congregation’s first installed minister, "and his successors who shall be Presbyterian ministers elected and appointed to officiate, minister & preach in the Presbyterian Church3". The deed signing was witnessed by John Carlyle, Jonathan Hall, James Hendrick, John Muir, and William Ramsay. The survey laying out the property line on the northern side of the new Presbyterian Meeting House lot was apparently not as accurate as it should have been — its location was contested and resurveyed as early as the 1820s and multiple times since.
The northern line of the property originally ran from the north side of the current north wall at the northwest corner of the lot (where it meets the sidewalk on Royal Street) and extended further north by the time it reached the Fairfax Street side of the property. How much farther north is not known, but one can stand on the west side of Royal Street and view the ìcollisionî of the north (rear) side of Flounder House with the sanctuary of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church to gain some appreciation of the original sense of this property line’s location.
On the southern side of the churchyard was located a ten-foot wide alley that originally extended the width of the block from Fairfax to Royal streets. Like many of the alleys in Old Town, this one was probably conceived of in different manners by adjoining property owners. On maps, it is depicted as being wide enough to provide access to the interior portions of all lots facing Wolfe Street, but not sufficiently wide to drive a carriage through (or park an automobile at the rear of one’s home). Access via the alley remained important to both the congregation and our neighbors on Wolfe Street into at least the 1840s, and appears as an across-block passageway on a plat map as late as the 1860s. Eventually, it was taken over by lot owners along Wolfe Street. The portion of the alley lying between the original portion of Elliot House and the Meeting House — currently the side yard of Elliot House — was legally closed only in the 1950s.
When a parsonage (now Flounder House) was erected on the Royal Street side of the churchyard in 1787, the churchyard was understood to consist of two separate units — a ìpublicî section, which consisted of the eastern side facing Fairfax Street and was occupied by the Meeting House and the burial ground; and a ìprivateî western section, which fronted on Royal Street and contained the parsonage and its yard. This division of the churchyard into public and private spaces continued until the 1925-28 restoration of the Meeting House. The two yards were united at that time by removing the fence that divided them and minor re-landscaping.
Landscaping done in conjunction with the restoration reoriented the Meeting House churchyard to make Royal Street the dominant entrance to the churchyard and grounds, now a fully open and public space (Flounder House continued to be occupied as a rental property, however). This alteration to the churchyard was done to make the Meeting House, which at the time served primarily as a historic shrine, more directly visible and accessible to tourists riding the trolley that ran along Royal Street on its way from Alexandria to Mount Vernon. In December 1932, at the program conducted by the City of Alexandria to conclude that year’s George Washington’s Birth Bicentennial, a newly erected brick wall that surrounded the churchyard was dedicated. It was a gift of the Sons of the American Revolution and defined the churchyard as the unified space that we know today. A bronze plaque commemorating the gift of these walls is located on the north wall of the churchyard, immediately to the northwest of the Meeting House.
When the Meeting House was restored to full-time use as a congregational worship space in 1949, the new congregation returned to earlier practice and utilized Fairfax Street as the dominant entrance to the churchyard. A significant step toward further unification of the formerly public and private portions of the churchyard was made in 1952 when the yard’s first walkway was installed. The new brick walkway provided an all-weather walking surface connecting the sidewalks on Fairfax and Royal streets for the first time in 180 years of use. Subsequent alterations to the churchyard, from the incorporation of new structures such as the Education Building to the partial implementation of several landscape plans and the planting of memorial trees over the last half century, have all respected the historic status of the Meeting House fronting on Fairfax Street as the dominant architectural and landscape feature of the churchyard.4
In 2005, the churchyard received its first significant alteration of its property lines in 222 years. When the restored and extended Elliot House was dedicated on April 17th of that year, its lot, which extended south from the Meeting House to Wolfe Street, became a part of our enlarged churchyard. The boundaries of our churchyard remain unaltered since 2005, but usages continue to evolve. See, for instance, the still-new corner garden next to Elliot House, which is filling out into a wonderful neighborhood green space. Descriptions of other historic uses of the churchyard, including its sheltering a fire engine, are included in the sections that follow.
1"Old Presbyterian Meeting House" is used here to designate this particular congregation of the Presbyterian Church. Several different names have served to designate our congregation during its nearly two-and-a-half-century history. The "Society of Presbyterians" identified those residents of Alexandria who first joined in public worship in the Assembly Hall on Market Square when it was erected in 1760. This congregation became the "First Presbyterian Church at Alexandria" when a second Presbyterian congregation was formed here in 1817 and retained that name through dissolution of the congregation in 1899. Other designations used to identify our congregation include simply "Presbyterian Church" (1772-1817), "Union Presbyterian Church" (1874-80), and since 1949, 'Presbyterian Meeting House" or "Old Presbyterian Meeting House".
"Meeting House" is used to refer to the structure that serves as our house of worship rather than terms such as ìsanctuaryî or ìchurchî. In line with Protestant practices in Colonial British America most fully exemplified by New England Puritans but also by Presbyterians, Methodists, and the Society of Friends (Quakers) in the Middle Colonies and elsewhere, "meeting house" served to designate "house of worship" (Bonomi 2003, Buggeln 2003, Mallary 1985, Sweeney 1993, Donnelly 1968, Garvan 1960, Wallace 1930). In Virginia, where the Church of England served as the colony’s official denomination, "meeting house" also served to designate places of worship erected by denominations other than the Church of England, i.e., all formally ìdissentingî denominations, which included Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, German Reformed, and Quakers.
2The first such "historic district" to be established in the United States through a preservation ordnance was the Old and Historic District of Charleston, South Carolina in 1931; the second was the Vieux Carre Historic District of New Orleans, Louisiana in 1936.
3The wording is taken from the original deed. The Arell family name is spelled "Arrell"on the deed, but more commonly was spelled "Arell". It is not known when the Arells purchased these two lots.
4An important aspect of the churchyard not discussed here is landscaping and plantings. Several landscape architects have provided consultation and/or plans for the churchyard, including Leon Zach, Rose Greely, Laurence Stevens Brigham, and J. Dean Norton. Several memorial plantings are known to have occurred over the years — a cherry tree placed at an unknown location in the churchyard by the Monticello Guards (with simultaneous plantings here and at Monticello) and a tree transplanted from Mount Vernon to the Alexandria Academy, both in conjunction with the celebration of George Washington’s birth bicentennial in 1932; four trees placed in front of the Meeting House at a ceremony that included a national radio broadcast featuring the director of the U.S. Forest Service in 1933; a dogwood tree in the churchyard by Jean Robertson Elliot in honor of her Presbyterian forebears in 1960; and English boxwood in the churchyard by Charles and Elizabeth Nance in 1990. The Meeting House has been included in the annual Historic Garden Week in Virginia tour many times since it was first conducted in 1929, most recently in 2007.
The original Meeting House, erected in 1775, was largely destroyed by fire in 1835.1 General information about the original structure survives, but no image is known to exist that was made during the sixty years it served the congregation. From textual information that survives, we know that many design aspects of the original Meeting House were incorporated into the rebuilt structure that was completed in 1837. The two structures resembled each other in appearance. The reconstructed Meeting House incorporated very little that would have been innovative in terms of contemporary American church architecture practices during the 1830s. In fact, the rebuilt structure that survives to this day represents a remarkably pure embodiment of what is sometimes referred to as "plain style architecture," a form of architectural expression that was closely associated with Reformed-Calvinist denominations in the United States and had been practiced for well over a century by the 1830s.2
Reformed-Protestant plain style architecture, although employed infrequently in Virginia where the Church of England dominated, appeared frequently in places of worship for Presbyterian, Congregational, Baptist, Dutch Reformed, and German Reformed congregations throughout the Middle Atlantic states and New England. Terms such as "unadorned," "austere," "modest," "functional," "noble simplicity," and "quietly reverential" are among those often used to describe the visual impact of Reformed-Protestant plain style architecture. Rather than a true architectural style, it is an architectural expression —it is an "unadorned" expression as opposed to an "adorned" or "ornate" one. This unadorned expression may be wrought in numerous architectural styles. The formal architectural style of the Meeting House is Georgian. Equally unadorned expressions may be found in places of worship constructed in Modern and Post-Modern architectural styles of the current century.3
Theologically, Reformed-Protestant plain style architecture attempts to create a place of worship that is based upon principles for corporate worship in the Reformed theological tradition, viz., a worship space that (1) forms a Domus Ecclesia, house for the gathered assembly, i.e., a meeting house, rather than a Domus Dei, house of God, with separate spaces for priests and worshippers, and (2) visually emphasizes the importance of the Word proclaimed. Thus, of most importance, is the centrality of a pulpit within a "preaching room" or "auditory church building," with accompanying facilities for baptism and celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the latter never including a communion rail as is typically found in the worship spaces of Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican-Episcopalian congregations. Most importantly, worshippers in such a space are accommodated in a spatial arrangement that facilitates hearing the Word (the reading of scripture and preaching). Embellishment or decoration of the worship space, even the presence of a cross, in a strict Reformed theological sense, is interpreted as a form of visual distraction from the principle task of worshippers engaged in corporate worship through focusing on hearing and responding to the Word.4
Original Meeting House
The original Meeting House was erected as Alexandria’s second house of worship in 1775, two years after the house of worship for the Church of England — now Christ (Episcopal) Church— had been erected, which then served as the official place of worship for this portion of Fairfax parish. No taken-from-life image exists of the original structure, but we know that it possessed basically the same overall dimensions — 60 by 50 feet — as the four other places of worship erected in this area during the period, which were for congregations of the Church of England — St. John’s Church, across the Potomac River at Broad Creek, Maryland (constructed in 1766), Falls Church in Fairfax County to the west (1767-69), Pohick Church in Fairfax County to the south (1769-74), and Christ Church in Alexandria (1773). Externally, they all presented very similar appearances, differing only in terms of number of stories and detailing (Upton 1997).
The original Meeting House was a two story structure, with walls 26-feet tall and a hipped roof topped by a cupola that contained a gilded bell. Its entrance doors were located on Fairfax Street, or perhaps on both Fairfax street and its southern side facing the alley that would have served as a walkway to a second set of entrance doors. The placement of entrance doors in adjacent walls was not unusual in local Anglican church structures, where seating configurations emphasized spaces for families accommodated with box pews, and cross aisles that allowed easy access to liturgical stations at several different locations within the worship space (rather than all being clustered at the front). An excellent example of this local early style of internal arrangement continues to exist at Pohick (formerly Church of England now Episcopalian) Church, in Fairfax County south of Mount Vernon.
A conjectural drawing of the original Meeting House, the only image of the original Meeting House known to exist, it was prepared by Mary Jane Stewart (1829-1909) around 1880, and is similar to one that appeared in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (Carne 1880). Stewart was a member of the congregation who could have possessed only a vague recollection of the original Meeting House — she was only six years old when it burned, and the drawing was prepared nearly a half century after the fire. Nonetheless, her representation could incorporate good handed-down information — her father, John A. Stewart would have possessed knowledge of the original structure that had been formed over decades. He had been a member of the congregation prior to 1817 and had served on the church committee when the original structure burned.
The Stewart image is presumably meant to depict the Meeting House as it would have appeared during the first half of the 1830s, just prior to the fire. The open and semi-pastoral setting depicted in the drawing is probably accurate, as the churchyard’s location in the 300-block of South Fairfax Street was long considered to be ìat the southern end of the streetî, meaning at the end of the street’s built-up portion. During this period, the location of Christ Church, in the 700-block of Cameron Street, was considered even more remote — it was thought to be located ìout of townî all together . The churchyard of the original Meeting House was separated from the paved sidewalk of Fairfax street by a brick wall.
The interior configuration of the original Meeting House probably differed at least somewhat, and possibly considerably, from the reconstructed Meeting House. Information on its layout is fragmentary. The pulpit was located along the north wall — the current pulpit is centered on the west wall. Originally, seating included at least some benches. In the eighteenth century, congregational seating often included both enclosed pews and benches. One of these original benches remains in use — it is the black bench with an extra deep seat that provides seating at the west end of the southern gallery. Some of the benches used in the original structure were sold to the Alexandria-Washington Masonic Lodge No. 22 in 1789. Those benches continue to be preserved in the recreated Alexandria lodge room at the George Washington National Masonic Memorial on King Street.
Enclosed pews with doors, either slip pews like the ones installed in the reconstructed Meeting House and still in use today, or box pews like those found at Pohick Church, provided a second form of seating in the original Meeting House. Galleries, to bring listeners as close to the pulpit as possible, extended along three sides of the original structure, as in the current Meeting House. A pipe organ, built by Jacob Hilbus of Washington, D.C., was installed in the gallery opposite the pulpit in 1817 and served until it was destroyed by the fire of 1835. If the original structure had entrance doors on adjacent walls, as in the manner of Pohick Church, then its aisles probably extended from both sets of doors and crossed in the center of the room.
The original Meeting House did not include a bell tower, but instead had a cupola on the roof to hold high the town’s first, and for many years only, publicly sounding bell. The bell was manufactured by the foundry of Morton and Foster in London and served not only as the signal that worship services were soon to begin, but also as the entire community’s public announcement system — from sounding an alarm in emergencies such as fires to mourning the death of George Washington in 1799.
The congregation contemplated erecting a truly massive bell tower and steeple, complete with town clock, in the late 1780s to accommodate its then-new church bell but it was not to be. Plans to erect a tower and steeple were advertised — newspaper notices seeking construction bids called for ìbrick and stone work [that] are to be 95 feet high from the foundation, on which will be erected a spire of wood, of 65 feet highî. At 160 feet, this would have been a truly massive bell tower and steeple. It would have been nearly 100 feet taller than the current 65-foot bell tower, and 40 feet taller than the current bell tower and steeple of neighboring St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church. Following the standard fund-raising procedure of the day, a public lottery was undertaken, but a smallpox epidemic swept through Alexandria in 1791 — at the time no doubt considered a Providential intervention — and forced its cancellation. Plans for a tower and steeple were abandoned, and none was ever constructed.
In 1835, a lightning strike largely destroyed the original structure, but it had also sustained considerable damage in encounters with extreme weather conditions at least twice earlier. In July of 1786, a hurricane swept through the Middle Atlantic region that caused damage from Hampton Roads at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay north into Pennsylvania and New Jersey. It tore the roof from the Meeting House and caused a wall and gallery to collapse. In a sermon delivered two decades later, the Rev. Dr. James Muir described the storm’s visit —
God rides on the wings of the wind; sensible of his approach all gives way. It is the homage of nature prostrating before him. July, 1786, gave a display of powers able to crush the boldest offender. A violent hurricane, raised the roof of the Presbyterian church [Meeting House], and tossed it about like the lightest substance. A solid mass of wall was driven in, and in the fall a third of the galleries [the gallery on the side where the wall collapsed], except the pillars, with all the pews below shivered to pieces. When the elders of the church and others came to ascertain the damage, their astonishment and dejection were visible; a judicious member, who had mingled with the crowd, after a moment’s pause, cheerfully exclaimed, ‘Never mind, keep a good heart, all will be well, see the pillars are standing’î (Muir 1812 15-16; italics in original).
A second encounter with severe weather elements caused extensive damage to the windows of the original Meeting House. In June of 1811, a horrendous hail storm, described in the newspaper as ìthe severest hail-storm ever witnessed by the oldest inhabitants [of Alexandria]î, caused considerable damage throughout the town. The Rev. Dr. James Muir provides a first-hand account of this encounter —
The weather on the 7th of June, was cloudy with short intervals of sunshine extremely scorching. About five in the afternoon the sky was overcast; distant thunder was heard, and frequent flashes of lightning seen. A dark cloud rushed forward from the West changing to the North as it approached the town attended with the severest hail-storm ever witnessed by the oldest inhabitants, which, in a narrow vane, raged for fifteen minutes. The hail, or rather the lumps of ice, were of irregular shapes, having sharp points. They weighed several ounces, and in circumference exceeded four inches, although the size was diminished before they could be weighed or measured in consequence of the deluge of rain. They fell with irresistible force; trees were partly stript [stripped] of their foliage, and of large branches; the shingles and slates of several houses were split:—many gardens were destroyed;—The waters of the river were splashed a foot or two upwards and all around;—The bird was killed in its flight, the cattle panic-struck run about seeking shelter:—several citizens were bruised;—Every house in town having windows to the North lost their glass, which lay strewed on the floors, and through every street;—Our church has lost glass to the amount of near three hundred panesî (Muir 1812 17-18; italics in original).
If the original Meeting House had the same window configuration as its replacement — 16 panes over 16 panes of glass, i.e., 32 panes of glass, per window — ìnear three hundred [broken] panesî would have meant that the glass in all of the windows on the structure’s north side would have been destroyed, plus some from other sides as well.
Reconstructed Meeting House
The original Meeting House experienced its most destructive encounter with severe weather elements on the Sunday afternoon of 26 July 1835 — lightning in a turbulent summer storm struck the Meeting House and caused such damage that an essentially new structure was required to replace the original one. The next issue of the newspaper reported — ìDuring the storm of Sunday afternoon last, the lightening struck the steeple [cupola] of the First Presbyterian Church in the first place, and in a few moments the ancient and venerable building was completely enveloped in flames. The fire spread with such rapidity from the steeple [cupola] to the roof, and from the roof to every part of the edifice, that, notwithstanding the most praiseworthy exertions were made by the fire companies and individuals to arrest the progress, there remained in a few hours nothing of the church but its wallsî (Alexandria Gazette 28 July 1835).
The replacement structure was completed and dedicated two years later, on 30 July 1837. It incorporated the 60 by 50-foot ground dimensions and 26-foot tall walls of the original, plus an addition to the Fairfax-Street end that added space for a narthex and stairs to the galleries. The Alexandria Gazette assessed the replacement structure — ìThe First Presbyterian Church edifice, rebuilt on the site of that old Church, which was destroyed by lightning about two years ago, was on Sunday last solemnly dedicated to the services of religion. The building is plain in its exterior, but commodious and neat, and its interior chaste and handsome, and well adapted for the convenience of seeing and hearingî (Alexandria Gazette 1 August 1837).
In terms of its architecture, the rebuilt structure embodied the plain meetinghouse style that was not only carried over from the original structure but had existed for generations in numerous other houses of worship throughout urban centers in the Middle Atlantic and New England portions of the Eastern Seaboard. Examples include the local ìkindred spiritî Presbyterian house of worship erected the previous decade — Georgetown Presbyterian Church (then known as Bridge Street Presbyterian Church), erected in 1821 on Bridge (now ìMî) Street just west of its intersection with Pennsylvania Avenue (it was demolished in 1872). Older examples, in earlier established urban centers include St. George’s United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, the ìmother church of American Methodismî, which dates from the 1760s; and Christ ìOld Northî Church and Old South Meeting House in Boston, both erected in the 1720s (these three houses of worship remain in use).
The Alexandria Gazette article’s reference to the rebuilt structure being ìwell adapted for the convenience of seeing and hearingî refers to the slope of the floor in the first-floor seating area — the floor at the pulpit end of the room is about a foot lower than at the Fairfax-Street entrance end. This makes each pew just a little bit lower then the one behind it, thus enhancing both viewing and hearing. It represents perhaps the rebuilt structure’s one ìmodernî feature, i.e., incorporating an innovation just coming into use. The floors in the worship space of Christ Episcopal Church (built 1773) and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (built 1817) are both flat, producing a different feeling about their interior space and a different functionality.
The reconstructed Meeting House was expanded in 1843 with the addition of an abutting bell tower at its western (burial-ground) side. A new bell, incorporating metal from the fire-destroyed original one, was cast by the Alexandria Iron Foundry of Thomas W. and Richard C. Smith, then located on the eastern side of Royal Street between Wilkes and Gibbon streets (current site of the Safeway store). This foundry also cast the bell for the old Fairfax County Courthouse and both continue to function today. The structure’s front porch and steps, originally of wood, were replaced with granite ones in 1853; they also remain in use to this day.
Amazingly few interior alterations have been made to the Meeting House since its reconstruction in the 1830s. Most have been made to accommodate technological improvements, such as replacing oil lamps with gas lights or introducing air conditioning to lower humidity and temperature during the summer. Changes have also been made to color schemes in response to altering contemporary tastes. Nonetheless, today’s Meeting House appears much as it did when reconstructed in the 1830s — ìcommodious and neatÖ chaste and handsome, and well adapted for the convenience of seeing and hearingî to again quote the Gazette — a remarkably unified and chaste visual aesthetic whole.
The most significant visual alterations that have occurred to the Meeting House since its reconstruction in 1837 cluster at the room’s front and in its galleries. The bell tower that was added to the Meeting House outside created space for an apse inside. This new interior space was utilized to house a new pipe organ in 1849. The instrument, which replaced the fire-destroyed 1817 Hilbus organ, was built by Henry Erben of New York City. It remains in use in this same space today, although from 1928 to 1997 it was located in the east gallery, having been relocated there during the renovation that was completed in 1928 in the belief that it was the original Hilbus organ, which in fact had been located in the gallery.
Almost a century after the addition of a bell tower resulted in changes to the interior of the Meeting House, a second structural modification was made to its front interior portion. In 1940, the existing pulpit and steps were reconfigured to their current appearance — an enclosed pulpit with steps curving down from both sides to the floor level. The new pulpit and steps replaced a lectern-style pulpit that sat in the center of an open-stage platform from which steps descended straight out to the sides. The earlier pulpit arrangement is visible in the Historic American Buildings Survey photograph of the Meeting House. The new pulpit was a gift of the Alexandria Association. At the dedication of the new pulpit, it was described as — ìa pulpit, which had been missing from the church for many yearsÖ [that was designed] on the basis of such data as was available concerning the appearance of the original and [of] a careful study of Presbyterian pulpits of the colonial period.î It was designed by Ward Brown, an architect engaged in Alexandria’s historic preservation efforts during the 1930s, who would serve on the Old and Historic District’s Board of Architectural Review when it was established in 1946.
In 1981, one other structural modification known to have occurred to the Meeting House since the 1830s took place when an entrance/exit door was added in the room’s northwest corner. It was located in one of the four niches that had once been occupied by heating stoves. A step-free exterior ramp leading from the sidewalk at Fairfax Street to the door was added at the same time.
Several other objects of recent vintage in the worship space are the communion table and baptismal font, created for the Meeting House in the early 1950s. The table for the service of the Lord’s Supper was designed by architect E. Townsley Jenkins, and the baptismal font by J. Rowland Snyder. The cross that now sits on the side table was created by the Stieff Silver Company of Baltimore during this same period. No historic antecedents of these objects are known to have existed at the Meeting House. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, tables for serving the Lord’s Supper, at which congregants would have been seated to receive the elements, would have been erected whenever this service was conducted, usually four times a year. Crosses and baptismal fonts were rarely found in Presbyterian places of worship for most of the historic congregation’s existence (Melton 1967, Smith 2001). Baptisms were often conducted among family members and friends at private homes. Crosses, baptismal fonts, and alter-like tables for serving the Lord’s Supper only began to be introduced into Presbyterian churches during the second half of the nineteenth century, when notions of acceptable church architecture among America’s Presbyterians, as among other Protestant denominations, underwent radical reconceptualizations.
The open galleries of the reconstructed Meeting House, with their flat-floor spaces, have served the congregation in many different capacities — they have served as a multi-purpose space longer than any other portion of the congregation’s facilities. From 1837 through 1952, they provided the congregation with its only space other than the ground floor of the Meeting House and the great outdoors for meeting space or conducting classes on Sundays. The congregation’s lecture hall, located at the corner of Duke and Royal streets, was considered too far away for such use. For generations, the galleries were simply referred to as ìthe Sunday Schoolî, but they provided space for numerous other functions over the decades — the choir from 1837 to the present; Erben organ from 1929 to 1997; Reuter organ from 1965 to 1997; and offices for clergy and secretary from 1949 to 1952. Today’s pews, which sit on top of raised platforms in the north and south galleries, were installed beginning in 1954. Since 1997, the east gallery has housed the Lively-Fulcher Opus 4 pipe organ. The central portion of the east gallery wall, where the clock is located, was extended slightly when the Lively-Fulcher organ was installed. The clock, original to the first Meeting House, survived the 1835 fire but no longer functions — it’s hands are now set at 10:20 p.m., the hour George Washington died on December 14, 1799, a reminder that Alexandria’s memorial services at his death were conducted at the Meeting House.
Sources of lighting in the Meeting House, other than daylight, have changed regularly over the years in response to the availability of new technologies — electrically powered lights, present since the first decade of the twentieth century, are at least the fourth generation of lighting technology to be utilized. Originally, candles were called upon, and served as the lighting source for so long that the terms ìearly candlelightî and ìcandlelightî routinely served to indicate early evening and evening portions of the day. For decades, evening worship services in the Meeting House were announced as occurring at early-candlelight or at candlelight. Whale oil lamps followed candles. Lighting fixtures for both candles and whale oil lamps would have included wall sconces and chandeliers. In 1853, the sperm whale-oil lamps and chandeliers then in use were replaced by a third form of lighting technology — gas. Alexandria’s first gasworks had been constructed at Lee and Oronoco streets in 1851 and the town’s first gas-illuminated street lights were installed in 1855. The wooden standards along the gallery railings that today are topped with candles originally held glass-globe fixtures with burning jets of gas. Glass-globe gas-light fixtures were also suspended directly beneath each of these wooden standards.
Electric lights represent the fourth form of lighting technology for the Meeting House, and most of the fixtures currently in use form the third generation of fixtures utilizing electricity. The first generation of electrical light fixtures was introduced in 1907 — a photograph taken shortly thereafter shows plain milk-glass globe fixtures hanging from gallery ceilings along with the still-existing gas-light fixtures. A second generation of electrical light fixtures was installed in conjunction with the 1925-28 restoration — the existing mix of gas and electric light fixtures was replaced by electric reproduction whale-oil ones, visible in the Historic American Buildings Survey photograph of the Meeting House interior. The national fund raising effort that was conducted to restore the Meeting House, which included the whale-oil style light fixtures, received the support of many persons, including Andrew Mellon, then U.S. Secretary of the Treasury; Elihu Root, then president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former Secretary of War and of State; and Daniel Willard, president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The whale-oil style lamps were eventually replaced by a third generation of electrical fixtures. The pewter-on-brass chandelier that currently hangs from the ceiling at the center of the room was produced in the Netherlands and installed in 1960. The brass-with-glass-globe light fixtures along the side aisles and in the narthex were installed as part of the 1987-90 restoration-renovation. The exterior light above the front porch was added then as well.
While the Meeting House, described as ìchaste and handsomeî in 1835, remains unadorned, its interior space does include visually prominent features that deserve explicit comment. The enclosed slip pews with doors are original to the reconstructed Meeting House. They emulate the older-style enclosed-pew seating of the original Meeting House rather than the open pews generally utilized by the 1830s. Racks for holding hymn books, communion cups, and pencils were added to the pews during the 1950s, with the racks for hymn books being doubled in size in 1980 to accommodate Bibles as well.
Though not visibly prominent, two other features of the enclosed pews are noteworthy. When you enter a pew, you need to step up, and to step down when leaving — the floor inside the enclosed pews is raised three inches above the floor of the room to provide an airspace for better insulation. One other feature of the enclosed pews, which must have been important to some worshippers during the nineteenth century but whose very existence today surprises us, is spitting boxes. Spitting boxes, installed in the pews of ìchewersî, were drawer-like boxes that were filled with sand and located under the seats of the pews in front of chewers. No doubt spittoons once could be found in the room’s corners as well.
A stone tablet memorial to the Rev. Dr. James Muir (1757-1820), who served the congregation for thirty-one years from 1789 to 1820, is located on the room’s north wall. It was re-erected at this location at the reconstruction in 1837 to be near Rev. Muir’s burial site under the original pulpit along the north wall. A second stone tablet, located on the south wall, was placed there in the 1880s to honor the Rev. Dr. Elias Harrison (1790-1863), who served the congregation for forty-six years, first as collegiate minister with Rev. Muir from 1817 to 1820 and then as sole minister from 1820 to 1863, and Robert Bell (1809-1885), who served the congregation as an elder for forty years and as superintendent of the Sunday School for over fifty years.
Recognition and Preservation of the Meeting House
The significance of the Meeting House, both in terms of the structure’s architecture and of actions taken by the congregation that are associated with it, has long been formally recognized both by the congregation itself and by numerous organizations outside the congregation. It is a National Historic Place — a structure considered ìsignificant in American History, architecture, archaeology, engineering and culture [and] worthy of preservationî. This designation, conferred by the U.S. Department of the Interior, includes listing in the federal government’s National Register of Historic Sites (plaque on faÁade of Meeting House; National Register of Historic Places website). The Meeting House and its churchyard are located within the Alexandria Historic Landmark District, a U.S. Department of the Interior designated National Historic Landmark.
The Meeting House is also a Historic Landmark of the Commonwealth of Virginia, designated by the Historic Resources Board of the Commonwealth of Virginia (plaque in narthex of Meeting House; Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission 1976). It is a Presbyterian Historic Site, so designated by the Presbyterian Historical Society of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. (plaque in narthex of Meeting House; Presbyterian Historical Society 1982-99). Locally, it is recognized not only as a historic structure but as one that has ìmaintained its historic and architectural integrityî by the Historic Alexandria Foundation (plaque on faÁade of Meeting House). It was included in the Historic American Buildings Survey, a program initiated in 1933 by the U.S. Department of the Interior to document the nation’s architectural heritage, and was photographically documented in 1936 and 1939 (images at Library of Congress website). The Meeting House is regularly included in surveys of historic structures (e.g., Brock 1930, Lindsey 1931, Rines 1936, U.S. Writers’ Program 1939 and 1940, Rawlings 1963, American Institute of Architects 1965, Bodine 1967, American Institute of Planers 1976, Cox 1976, Cromie 1979, Northern Virginia History Officials 1981, Davis and Rawlings 1985, Seale 2000, Shively 2001, Massey 2003), and most recently appeared in the richly illustrated The Ideals Guide to Historic Places of Worship in the United States (Skarmeas 2004).
Concern for preservation of the architectural integrity of the Meeting House has been active within the congregation for at least three-quarters of a century. During this period, three major restoration/renovations have been undertaken. The first such project was initiated in 1925 with a national fundraising campaign to ìmake needed repairs, that the church may stand for more than another century, a landmark of the days of Washington, of early Presbyterianism in America, and a symbol of united North and SouthÖ [I]t is by urgings of descendants of the seceding Southern brethren of the Old First Church that the crumbling steeple [i.e., bell tower] of the ancient edifice is to rear itself once more to its full height and proclaim that ‘there is no more strife—no enmity which can not be forgotten’.’’ (Washington Post 22 February 1925) Consulting architect for this project was Clarence Loweii Harding of the District of Columbia. (Gordon 1929)
Among the many tasks undertaken with the 1920s restoration/renovation was the installation of a slate roof by Joseph Rodgers; replacement of the existing gas and electric lighting systems with electric reproduction colonial oil lamps; reconditioning and relocation of the Erben organ from the apse to the east gallery; repairs to the interior floors and walls, repainting of the interior in a ìbuffî color; placement of a bronze plaque over the builder’s stone in the Fairfax Street faÁade that read ìOld Presbyterian Meeting House – Erected 1774î; clean up of the burial ground and churchyard; erection of a white picket fence along Royal Street; and the preparation of numerous framed images of pages from historic congregation records, of individuals associated with the Meeting House, and the ìunfinishedî Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, that were placed on walls throughout the interior. When the restoration was completed in 1928, the dedication celebration included a nationally broadcast radio program from the Meeting House that featured Major General John A. Lejeune, Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps and John A. Saunders, Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
For the next twenty years, the Meeting House served both as a place of worship and as a museum celebrating Alexandria’s connections to George Washington and to its colonial past. Its prominent stature as a museum linked with George Washington was recognized by the United States George Washington Bicentennial Commission, which presented it with a Joseph Nollekens’ bust of George Washington in 1932. The Commission presented other copies of the Nollekens’ bust to the White House, Justices of the Supreme Court, U.S. Senators and Representatives, and state governors for display in their capital buildings. The Meeting House’s copy, originally displayed in one of the side niches, is now located in the library in Elliot House. The ìmuseumî phase extended through 1949 and was something the new congregation worked to move beyond — text of the first brochure they prepared for visitors began with ìA shrine becomes a living churchÖ You have crossed the threshold of one of America’s most historic and beautiful churches.î
A second major restoration/renovation was undertaken immediately after an independent congregation reoccupied the Meeting House and its associated property in 1949. Tasks undertaken as part of this project, which took place during 1949 and 1950, included numerous repairs to the exterior brickwork, roof, windows, interior walls, floors, and clock on the wall of the east gallery; replacement of supports for the bell in the tower; replacement of the pot-bellied coal stoves with a forced-air gas furnace that included installation of air ducts; painting with a color explicitly created for the Meeting House by the Glidden Paint Co. in response to research undertaken to discover original paint colors; and a cleaning and tuning of the Erben organ, plus the installation of an electric blower for the bellows (after a century, ìplayingî the organ became a one-person job, as the task no longer included the hand pumping of air into the bellows!).
Consultants on this project included Walter Macomber, then resident restoration architect at Mount Vernon and previously the architect at Colonial Williamsburg (1928-33); Frederick L. Rath, Jr., director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Helen Duprey Bullock also of the National Trust; and Worth Bailey, architectural historian and curator at Mount Vernon. When the project was completed, U. S. Grant III, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, singled out the Meeting House in a national address as a place where ìafter years of what President Cleveland called ‘innocuous desuetude’ [it] has recently been rescued by its own daughter church, the Second Presbyterian, and has correctly and lovingly been restored and opened again for worshipî (Washington Post 5 May 1952).
In 1987-90, the congregation undertook a third restoration/renovation of the Meeting House, which again included both exterior and interior phases. A detailed preliminary investigation of the structural integrity of the Meeting House guided several subsequent actions, including the repair of structural supports in the roof and replacement of the slate roofing, which had been put in place during the 1925-28 restoration, with sheet metal. Other work to the exterior included re-pointing and cleaning of the brick; replacement of the front doors; replacement of roof gutters; removal of the bronze plaque that had covered the front faÁade builder’s stone since the 1925-28 restoration; replacement of the two exterior sets of stairs at the base of the bell tower; and the repair and painting of windows, bell tower woodwork, etc. Interior work included replacement of electric light fixtures in the aisles, narthex, stairs, choir loft, and outside front faÁade; replacement of carpeting, first installed in 1959; renovation of rest rooms; renovation of the pulpit to make its upper section removable; installation of a new sound system; and the repairing and repainting of interior surfaces. In 1990, the congregation received a Merit Award for ìextraordinary achievement in historic preservation/renovationî for this project from the Washington Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
1The choice of a date for the construction of the Meeting House provides an example of the difficulties that sometimes accompany pinpointing specific dates for acts that occurred "long ago". The date of 1774 was long accepted as its date of construction — it is the date used in the first history of the congregation, prepared by the Rev. Dr. James Muir (Muir 1794); it appeared in every public account throughout the nineteenth century and throughout nearly the entire twentieth century; it appears on the builder’s tablet on the facade of the Meeting House, which was placed there in 1837. In the 1990s, a newspaper advertisement was discovered that had appeared in the Maryland Gazette (Annapolis) on 17 May 1775. Placed by John Carlyle and William Ramsay, it sought construction bids for the Meeting House, so we know that it was not erected in 1774. The 1775 date has since served as the date of construction for the original structure. To place the date of construction in its historic context — the town of Alexandria was chartered in 1749; our congregation was organized in 1772; and the local Church of England "house of the church", now the worship space of Christ (Episcopal) Church, was erected in 1773 (Morrill 1979).
2Jeanne Halgren Kilde, in her work on architecture and theology, provides two definitions of "meetinghouse"— (1) "A building used by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Puritans and other groups for public assemblies and religious services." (2) "A physically austere building used for warship." (Kilde 2008 226). Photographic images of the range of architectural styles that have been utilized in American houses of worship, including meetinghouses, are provided by Chiat (2004), Morgan (2004), Skarmeas (2004), and Presbyterian Historical Society (1982-99).
3The Georgian style of architecture appeared in the United States in buildings erected between roughly 1700 and 1775. Notable examples include the Wren Building of the College of William and Mary, The Capitol Building, and the Governor’s Palace, all in Williamsburg, Virginia. Hallmarks of Georgian architectural design include rigid symmetry, axial entrances, geometrical proportions, medium-pitched roofs with little overhang, multi-pane double-hung windows, brick and stone construction materials, and red, tan, or white colors (Curl 2002, Poppeliers et al. 1983). The architectural style of the Meeting House also owes much to the Italian Renaissance architectural master, Andrea Palladio, whose influence was so strongly expressed in the structures designed by Thomas Jefferson (Rybczynski 2002, Brownell et al. 1992).
4Reformed Protestant plain style architecture provides an approach to structuring places of worship that has not only been historically significant in the United States, but remains vital and active today. On its historical application, see Garvan (1950 and 1960), Sweeney (1993), Turner (1979), Brett (2005), Buggeln (1999), Nichols and Trinterud (1960), White (1964 and 1999), White and White (1988), and Williams (1997 and 1999). Tolles presents the case that the ìQuaker meetinghouse in its utter functional simplicity represents the ultimate development of that [Protestant plain] styleî (Tolles 1959 487). Heatwole (1989) documents the importance of the plain style for American Mennonite places of worship. Ellis (1997) demonstrates how the values of religious dissenters in eighteenth-century Virginia altered domestic as well as religious architecture. Contemporary expressions of the plain style are shown and discussed by Bruggink (1971 and 1982), Bruggink and Droppers (1965), Daniels (1982), Engleman (2004-05), and Miller (2004-05). Williams’ historical-geographic analysis of religious architecture demonstrates an immense number of regional differences; see chapters on New England, The Mid-Atlantic States, and The South (1997 1-155). In religious architecture, as with numerous other aspects of culture, Northern Virginia was a zone of convergence (conflict zone) between sources from Tidewater Virginia and the Middle Colonies and New England (Upton 1997 90-98).The Meeting House provides a remarkably well-preserved expression of the Reformed-Protestant plain style architecture expressed in the Georgian mode — it is Georgian in terms of its basic design elements and proportions but its plain-style expression omits the distinctively Georgian vocabulary of decorative elements (Curl 2002).
5Throughout the Colonial British American period, the Church of England served as the official religious denomination of Virginia. The congregations of other denominations, such as Presbyterian, Friends (Quaker), German Reformed, Baptists, and Mennonites, all fell into the general category of "Dissenters".
6It was sometimes referred to as the "Church in the Woods" (Morrison 1979).
7The facade of the Erben organ continues to wear a mask dating from the period when it was located in the gallery. Its "refaced" facade — a covering of grey paint — dates from its being incorporated into the casing of the Reuter organ, which was painted grey. The original finish of the Erben organ’s wooden facade was faux-grained wood.
8The Alexandria Association was established in 1932 as the first local organization dedicated to the preservation of the city’s historical landmarks. Installation of the new pulpit was seen as completing the work of the 1925-28 restoration headed by John B. Gordon of Second Presbyterian Church. The dedication program included an address by Frederick A. Delano, chair of the National Capital Park and Planning Commission and the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, spirituals performed by the Sabbath Glee Club of Richmond, Virginia, and pieces performed on the Erben organ.
9The congregation established a Sunday School program (Sabbath-Day School) in 1817, so the provision of space to conduct classes is long-standing requirement. The provision of space for a choir — a choir loft — is a long-standing demand as well, perhaps dating from as early as the 1790s, when congregational singing of hymns emerged at the Meeting House. A choir as a separate body of individuals existed by the late 1830s — Minutes of the Church Committee note the hiring of a choir director in February 1839.
10The memorial to the Rev. Dr. Elias Harrison and Robert Bell provides the Meeting House’s sole expression of the Gothic Revival architectural style, which emerged in the United States during the 1840s and flourished following the Civil War (Stanton 1968).
11An account of the significance of the Meeting House and the many historic acts associated with it has not been attempted here. Some indications of the content of such an account are contained in Events in the History of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House (Old Presbyterian Meeting House 2008).
12National guides to historic houses of worship such as the one by Skarmeas (2004) provide an interesting measure of the uniqueness of the Meeting House — Skarmeas describes about two-hundred historic houses of worship, something less than one-tenth of one percent of all houses of worship in the United States — rare company.
13The Meeting House was included in the tourist promotion program funded by Alexandria’s City Council and the American Automobile Association that erected highway direction signs in 1930. One of the two original Meeting House signs continues to stand at the corner of Pitt and Wolfe streets. The guidebooks prepared for the federal government’s American Guide Series indicate that admission to the Meeting House during the 1930s cost $0.10 (U.S. Writers’ Program 1939, 1940).
14The 1949-50 Meeting House restoration/renovation occurred just as federal interests in historic preservation took a major step forward — legislation by the U.S. Congress created the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1949 out of the former National Council for Historic Sites and Buildings. The Meeting House congregation was an institutional member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation during the 1950s and 60s and sent representatives to the Trust’s annual national preservation conferences several times during this period.
15Several documents produced during the course of the 1987-90 restoration/renovation provide valuable historical information; see especially Downey (1986 and 1988), Jennings (1988), Mosca (1988a and 1988b), and Tuttle et al. (1989). They are preserved along with other papers from each of these projects in the Meeting House Archive.
The churchyard burial ground, located to the north and west of the Meeting House, served as the final resting place for the remains of Alexandria’s Presbyterians from the town’s earliest days through 1809. In that year, the congregation established the Presbyterian Cemetery on Hamilton Lane in response to an 1804 ordinance from Alexandria’s Common Council that prohibited further burials within the city limits. The churchyard had been conveyed as a gift to the congregation by Richard and Eleanor Arell in 1773, but evidence indicates that interments preceded that date, perhaps by many years. Records of individuals who were laid to rest in the burial ground prior to the land’s transfer to the Meeting House include Sarah Fairfax Carlyle (d. 1761), the first wife of John Carlyle, and Archibald Thompson, who died in August 1772. The practice of burying on lots prior to their use for constructing a place of worship occurred fairly frequently during this period.
Church records indicate that at least 300 persons were interred in the churchyard during the half century or so that it served as the primary burial site for members of the congregation. Among those buried here are men and women from the families that founded the town of Alexandria—Alexanders, Carlyles, Ramsays, and others; the Rev. William Thom, the congregation’s first minister and Mary Thom, his mother; members of the family of the Rev. Dr. James Muir, the congregation’s third minister; and numerous veterans of the French and Indian War and of the Revolutionary War. The Tomb of an Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution is also located in this burial ground (see below). Several memorial services are held throughout the year at this site. In addition, the burial ground holds the remains of members of the Society of the Cincinnati and founding members of Alexandria-Washington Masonic Lodge No. 22, which George Washington served as Master. The last person known to be interred here was Elizabeth Love Muir, daughter of the Rev. James and Mrs. Elizabeth Muir, in 1876.
Two plaques, located in the northeast corner of the burial ground, memorialize those interred here. One specifically honors the many Revolutionary War Patriots who are buried here. It was emplaced in 2006 by the George Washington Chapter, Virginia Society Sons of the American Revolution and the St. Andrew’s Society of Washington, D.C. The 43 Revolutionary War dead in the burial ground and the Presbyterian Cemetery combined equal the largest number of such interments in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The second plaque, honoring all who were laid to rest in the burial ground, was erected by the congregation in 2009.
Only about 40 gravestones are present in the burial ground today. This figure, rather than a number in the hundreds which would more closely represent the actual number of burials, is the result of several factors. Many burials were of infants who died within a year of birth and were interred before being formally named, so many of their graves were never marked. Further, the memorial stones erected by the strong Calvinist Presbyterians tended to be plain and free of artistic embellishment, much like the Meeting House itself. Not considered visually interesting as time passed, they were disregarded and not maintained or replaced as they deteriorated.
The space allocated to the burial ground has diminished over time. Gravesites were covered over and lost when the Meeting House was rebuilt and expanded during the 1830s and 1840s, and others were lost when the northern property line was adjusted southward. The location of this line was adjusted several times prior to erection of the brick wall that has defined it since 1932. As just one illustration of the contraction of this space, the remains of a soldier from the American Revolution were unearthed during the expansion of St. Mary’s sanctuary in 1826. They were reinterred in the Meeting House burial ground, and the Tomb of an Unknown Soldier of the Revolutionary War was erected in 1929 to mark his grave by the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
In 2008, the Meeting House congregation established a new committee to oversee the churchyard burial ground. In 2011, this Committee prepared an accurate new map of the site and used it as the basis for a new brochure. The Committee also conducted a thorough survey of the burial ground and developed an assessment of the condition of each gravestone and fragment. These data formed the basis for a comprehensive three-phase conservation plan for the site. In the spring of 2015, the Meeting House received a grant from the Historic Alexandria Foundation for partial support of this conservation work. With these funds, a further grant from the Presbyterian Cemetery Board, and accumulated monies in hand, the Committee immediately began to address the most pressing issues. In September 2015, workers from Manassas Granite & Marble—experts in the conservation and repair of grave markers using approved methods—completed the Phase I conservation work.
The Structure today known as Flounder House, on the Royal Street side of the churchyard, was erected by the congregation to serve as a parsonage, or manse (minister’s residence), in 1787 and is believed to be Alexandria’s earliest structure to be constructed in this unusual ‘flounder’ architectural style.1 The freestanding, two and one-half-story, center-hall residential structure originally included dormers in the roof and provided two and one-half above-ground floors of living space plus a basement. The Rev. Dr. Muir described it as a "commodious house" when he resided there with his wife, Elizabeth Muir, three daughters, son, and at least one servant at the close of the eighteenth century. Our sense of "appropriate dwelling space" has altered dramatically in two centuries (Larkin 2006).
Flounder House was constructed by Robert Brockett, master builder and brick maker who also built portions of Market Hall and numerous other structures in Alexandria. Brockett was paid £268 for the structure. He was a member of the congregation and is buried in the Presbyterian Cemetery. Flounder-style structures are characterized by a windowless side wall located immediately adjacent to the property line and a half-gable roof, with the windowless property-line wall being taller than the one facing the inside of the lot. The resulting "one-sided" structural character inspired them to be named for the similarly "one-sided" flounder fish. The style provides as much usable open space on narrow urban lots as possible, and is similar to the intense zero-lot-line residential developments that are popular in some parts of the country today. Old Town Alexandria is known for its large number of flounder-style residences, but they may also still be found in those cities, ranging from Philadelphia to St. Louis, that experienced building booms during the late eighteenth century and have had at least some of their inner-city residential areas survive. Alexandria once possessed as many as seventy-five of these unique structures, but today that number has diminished to fewer than twenty.
The Flounder House was first occupied as a parsonage by the Rev. Dr. Isaac Stockton Keith and subsequently was used by all clergy through closure of the historic congregation either as a residence or as a rental property when they chose to live elsewhere. Following the historic congregation’s closure in 1899, Flounder House was extended to the east. It was used as a rental property for the next fifty years.
When the congregation was re-established in 1949, it first attended to the physical condition of the Meeting House, but then quickly turned to the badly deteriorated Flounder House. To transform Flounder House into spaces that would accommodate mid-twentieth century uses, the newly established congregation undertook its second major restoration-renovation of a historic structure — substantial repairs were made to the original portion of the structure and it was thoroughly renovated; the rather haphazardly constructed eastern extension of 1902 was removed and replaced; and the eastern end of the building was extended slightly to create space for a second stairwell. This undertaking was completed in September 1952 and provided space for administrative offices, meeting rooms, library, and kitchen, none of which had ever existed before!
2During the subsequent half century, spaces within Flounder House have been altered several times to accommodate increases in the number of staff members and in response to altered functional requirements. Major changes occurred, for instance, when the Education Building provided much needed new space when it was completed in 1957. Its most recent renovation occurred when church staff offices were relocated from Flounder House to Elliot House following that structure’s restoration and extension in 2005. The reconfiguration made then continues to the present — three large meeting rooms, one on each floor; the Archives, in a room that originally served as the parlor of the parsonage; an office, currently being utilized by the Alexandria Tutoring Consortium, in a room that served as a study for pastors from 1952 to 2006; and a partial kitchen in the lower level. The numerous alterations that have occurred to what was once the private yard of the Flounder House are discussed in the section on the Courtyard.
1Flounder House may be Alexandria’s oldest structure of this style; see Feldhaus (1986) and Martin (1986).
2The congregation’s pride in its just-renovated Flounder House and recently renovated Meeting House facilities was perhaps a factor in Session’s inviting the two local Presbyteries to convene at the Meeting House on Veteran’s Day, 11 November, 1952. The two bodies — Presbytery of Potomac of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. and Presbytery of Washington City of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. — separate since the Civil War, convened in joint session and worshipped as one body here for the first time since they had separated (the two bodies merged into one when the larger denominations united in 1983). All were served lunch in Flounder House.
The Education Building, which faces Royal Street and the interior courtyard, was the first new structure erected by the congregation in over 120 years. New in 1957, it has already served the congregation for over half a century.
The Education Building was dedicated on June 12, 1957, eight years to the day after the first worship service was celebrated by the re-established congregation in 1949. When planning for the new building began in 1956, the congregation numbered just over 600 members, with 300-plus students enrolled in Sunday School classes. A building was planned that would accommodate the needs of a congregation of 1,200 members, but a year after its completion, Session Minutes note — ìContrary to expectations, the matter of space for the Church School [in the new Education Building] is already a critical problem!î
The first plan for an Education Building as a supplement to space gains that occurred with the restoration/refurnishing of Flounder House was made in 1955 by the architect Frank W. Cole, a member of the congregation. The structure he proposed was a mirror image of Flounder House, with its rear wall along the south property line (bordering what is now a parking lot). The structure’s relatively narrow flounder-style design enabled the historically open view of the Meeting House from Royal Street to be retained. The two flounder-style buildings were to be connected by an arched brick arcade paralleling Royal Street, which would have created an open courtyard similar to the one that exists today. Based upon a desire for more usable space in the new building, a second plan was developed, also by Frank W. Cole. This second plan, which produced the building we have today, mirrors the architectural style of the Meeting House rather than Flounder House.
Alterations to the interior of the building have occurred several times during its half century of use. Most notable was the renovation undertaken in 1993 — the courtyard entrance was reconfigured to include a set of two curving stairs rather than the original single stair; Fellowship Hall and the kitchen were renovated; and the exterior ramp down to Fellowship Hall from the courtyard was added. Nonetheless, today’s structure would be quite familiar to anyone who had attended its 1957 dedication. The building includes the large meeting room named Fellowship Hall and a kitchen on the lower level. The first floor includes an office and four rooms; the second floor accommodates six rooms; and the third floor, two rooms and storage. The third-floor space, now commonly referred to as ìHeavenî, remained unfinished until 1989, when several other interior renovations were also made. The image of the Education Building in the ground-breaking brochure includes dormer windows in the roof, indicating that the architect planned the third floor as fully usable space from the outset — three decades later that plan was fulfilled.
The Education Building is filled to capacity on Sundays with classes and with child care in the nursery during worship services. It is abuzz weekdays as well, filled with eighty children plus teachers from the Meeting House Co-operative Preschool. The Co-operative Preschool is the successor to the kindergarten and pre-school programs that have been operated at the Meeting House since a kindergarten program was established ìas an extension of the religious education program of the Churchî by Louise Maechtle in 1954.1 The mission established for the building by the Rev. Dr. Kenneth Phifer at its dedication continues to reverberate — ìWhile our new Education Building will be used in various ways by our entire congregation, its most important and regular use will be for the purpose of teaching our children those attitudes toward God and man that shall make them finer people and, through them, shall make the world at least a little bit better place. It is not a little thing to have a part in such a program.î (Old Presbyterian Meeting House 1957).
1The kindergarten that was conducted in Flounder House during its first three years of operation evolved into the Meeting House Co-Operative Preschool in 1970, when Alexandria and Fairfax County both began to offer kindergarten classes in their public school programs.
The courtyard, located between Flounder House and the Education Building, serves as the Royal Street entrance space of the Meeting House churchyard. It assumed its current configuration, with two major components — a brick-paved reception area and a play area covered with wooden chips — in 1993. During the school year this entire space is charged with the energetic buzz of children from the Meeting House Co-operative Preschool whenever the children receive "outdoor time".
From the time that the Flounder House was constructed in 1787 until the Education Building was erected in 1957, this space served as the yard of the parsonage and was enclosed by a white picket fence on its Royal Street side — the current red brick wall was installed in 1932 — and a wooden fence on its east side separating it from the burial ground. When it served as a yard for the parsonage, this space accommodated all sorts of out-of-door functions associated with household economies during the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries, including the drying of the week’s laundry (depicted in the photograph of Flounder House during the 1920s); providing a household garden — Rev. Muir notes in his 1805 diary that he planted corn here (Muir 2009); space for a family cow; and a privy. It was a private space serving residents of Flounder House.
It was not until the re-establishment of a permanent congregation at the Meeting House in 1949 that this space came to be transformed from the private yard of Flounder House into its current uses. In 1952, a walkway was installed that connected the Royal and Fairfax sides of the churchyard for the first time — it passed to the south side of the Meeting House. This brick walkway included a walk to the steps of Flounder House, which had just been restored and renovated into offices. Adjustments to these churchyard walkways were made when the Education Building was erected in 1957 and again in the 1990s.
When a weekday kindergarten program for four and five year olds was established in Flounder House in 1954, a demand for outdoor recreation space emerged, and portions of the courtyard were given over to a play area. Subsequent alterations included erection of the "Little House" in 1975, which was attached to the west end of Flounder House as a creative play space of its own and is now used to store play equipment. The Little House honored Phaedra Ann Lewis, young daughter of Mr. and Mrs. G. Ray Lewis; Ruth Lockwood, long-term leader in the kindergarten and day-care programs; and Oliver N. Maechtle, late husband of Louise Maechtle, who established the kindergarten program. Minor reconfigurations of the courtyard space ensued until it was divided into separate brick-paved reception and play areas in 1993.
Elliot House has served the Meeting House congregation only since 2005, but as is generally the case with Meeting House structures, it possesses a long and unique story all its own. The Elliot House lot at the northwest corner of Fairfax and Wolfe streets was created with the division of lots associated with first expansion of Alexandria in 1763, and was once owned by Richard and Eleanor Arell, who donated the lot adjoining it to the north for use of the Meeting House congregation. In the early 1840s, it was purchased by the Charles B. and Susan Unruh family, who had moved to Alexandria from Germantown, Pennsylvania. Charles and his oldest son were blacksmiths with a shop located at the corner of Duke and Union streets. The Unruh family erected their residence at 323 South Fairfax Street — a wooden free-standing two-story structure in the Greek Revival style — by at least 1842. That structure continues as the front portion of today’s Elliot House. It is the only major structure to have been erected on this corner lot, although several small ones may have preceded it.
Among the many residents of this structure since it was built by the Unruhs in the 1840s were several who were members of the Meeting House congregation. Robert W. Bell, Jr., who purchased the property in the 1860s and lived here into the 1880s, served for many years on both the Meeting House Church Committee and the governing board of the Presbyterian Cemetery. Alexandria’s famous City Atlas (Hopkins 1875) depicts the lot during this period as including the residence with a two-story extension at its northwest corner and a frame stable in the northwest corner of the yard. Robert Bell worked initially in the family’s printing-stationer-bookseller business — Robert Bell and Sons at 61 King Street — and later as a wood dealer and as surveyor for the City of Alexandria.
Several photographs of the structure from the first half of the twentieth century survive — during the mid-1920s, it was photographed along with nine other Alexandria buildings for an article in Progressive Architecture (Saylor 1926); and in 1939, it was photographed for the Historic American Buildings Survey, a project of the U.S. Department of the Interior to document the nation’s architectural treasures. In 1939, it was known as ìCrocker Houseî. During this period, the home was occupied by a New-Deal couple from Missouri — the Honorable Harry W. Blair, Assistant U.S. Attorney General in the Department of Justice, and the Honorable Emily Newell Blair, suffragist and chair of the U.S. Consumers Advisory Board.
In 1960, the house was purchased by R. Sherrard "Sherrie" Elliot (1901-1987) and Jean Robertson Elliot (1901-1999), when they moved to Alexandria from Tarrytown, New York. Sherrie Elliot, a financier, served as vice-president of Financial General Corporation and on the board of several local banks. He was also an elder and trustee of the Meeting House congregation. Jean Elliot was active in numerous Alexandria organizations, especially ones relating to the town’s history, and published the well-received collection of poems, A Starrier Coldness. Her poems also served as the text for Alexandria Suite, a musical work for mixed chorus and chamber orchestra or keyboard composed by Russell Woollen for the Alexandria Choral Society and debuted at the Meeting House in 1987. She was named Poet Laureate of the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1977 and of the City of Alexandria in 1979, and played a leading role in the Alexandria Library Company, which held its annual lectures in the Meeting House during the 1960s and 1970s.
The Elliots presented their home as a gift to the Meeting House in 1978, retaining rights to lifetime occupancy. When Jean Elliot died in 1999, the Meeting House prepared plans to restore the original structure, construct an addition, and create a new side-yard garden. In conjunction with this project, a formal archaeological investigation of the yard was undertaken and a former well and a cistern were unearthed. Excavations produced numerous artifacts, which are now stored with the city’s Alexandria Archaeology (Alexandria Archaeology n.d., Jirikowic et al. 2004). The restored and expanded Elliot House today includes original rooms on the first floor — parlor and library — and on the second floor — minister’s study and conference room — plus offices for church staff and meeting rooms in the addition and on the lower level.
Elliot House has been recognized as an Old Town structure that has maintained its historic and architectural integrity by the Historic Alexandria Foundation (plaque located on its Fairfax Street faÁade). It was included in the Historic American Buildings Survey conducted by the U.S. Department of the Interior (photographed in 1939) and other accounts of historic architecture (Saylor 1926, Davis et al. 1946, Cox 1976). An Award of Merit for ìoutstanding achievements in historic resourcesî was presented by the Washington Chapter of the American Institute for Architects to the Meeting House congregation for its restoration/renovation of the original portion of the structure and its extension in 2006.
Royal Street Parking Lot
To form a parking lot, our congregation purchased three properties at 419, 425, and 427 South Royal Street in 1958. At the time of purchase, these lots were occupied by a two-story frame duplex residence and open space. The structures were removed and the lot paved in the summer of 1958. The low brick walls at either side of the entrance were added in 2005.
During the 1950s, most of the new residences then being built in Alexandria were added on to the periphery of previously developed areas, and property values in core areas were in relative decline. Local business leaders called for the then very much in vogue "urban renewal" of Old Town. A newspaper article that appeared when the congregation’s plans for the lot were first announced reveals this sentiment — "The City Improvement Committee of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce voted last week to commend the Old Presbyterian Meeting House ‘for its contribution to Alexandria’s vital program of urban renewal’ by purchasing and planning removal of a substandard building on South Royal Street." The post-World War II flight of residents and businesses to the suburbs was on, and the question raised about what to do about established but declining inner-city areas that were being "left behind".
The Meeting House, St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Second Presbyterian Church, Beth El Hebrew Congregation, First Baptist Church, Alfred Street Baptist Church, and other Old Town congregations all had increasing numbers of members, who were among those moving to new suburban residences yet seeking convenient parking when attending events at their houses of worship. Along with many other Old Town institutions, some of these congregations decided to relocate to peripheral locations where parking was more easily accommodated. Others chose to remain in Old Town and do what they could to create additional parking spaces.
St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church removed its classroom building (built in 1858) from the corner of Royal and Wolfe streets and created space for automobiles to park there in 1950. St. Mary’s also removed apartment buildings located to the north of the Meeting House on Fairfax Street to create a parking lot there in 1959. The congregation of First Baptist Church divided, with some members forming a new congregation and relocating to a new structure on suburban King Street in 1954, and some remaining at South Washington Street to form the new Downtown Baptist Church. The congregation of Alfred Street Baptist Church purchased the lot adjacent to its original sanctuary in 1956, and then considered relocating, but chose to remain in Old Town, to expand its facilities, and to create additional parking spaces. Beth El Hebrew Congregation relocated from North Washington Street to Seminary Road in 1957. Second Presbyterian Church, which had long considered relocating, began its efforts to move to Janney’s Lane in earnest when its property was condemned for urban renewal in 1960.
The Presbyterian Cemetery, a seven-acre burial ground located on Hamilton Lane a mile west of the Meeting House, was established by the congregation in 1809. Prior to that date, congregation members were interred in the churchyard Burial Ground. The cemetery was created in response to the passage of an 1804 Common Council ordinance forbidding further burials within the town limits. When founded, the cemetery was located in open countryside, just across the boundary line between the Commonwealth of Virginia and the District of Columbia, of which Alexandria was then a part. The rear portion neighbors the Alexandria National Cemetery, created as one of the initial seventeen national cemeteries in July 1862.
The history of the Presbyterian Cemetery can be divided into four periods. The first period extends from 1809 to the beginning of the Civil War. The second, from 1861 to the end of the nineteenth century, saw the end of the Civil War, the ascendancy of Second Presbyterian Church, and the eventual decline of the Meeting House. During the half-century from 1899 to 1949 neither the Meeting House nor the Presbyterian Cemetery received much attention until the mid 1920s. Then, Second Presbyterian Church led a major restoration of the old Meeting House, and the Court appointed a group of prominent Alexandrians to oversee cemetery operations. The Meeting House was re-colonized by members of Second Presbyterian in 1949, and both the church and the cemetery have since experienced a true renaissance.
In 1960, the late Reverend Dr. William Randolph Sengel was called to become the ninth pastor of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House. He became interested in the Presbyterian Cemetery, felt that the Meeting House should reclaim it, and worked gradually and patiently toward this end over the next two decades. In January 1999, the Presbyterian Cemetery once again became a part of the ministry of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House. It operates today as an independent entity overseen by a Presbyterian Cemetery Board under the authority of the Session of the Meeting House.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, to meet a growing demand for a facility suitable for the interment of cremated remains, the Presbyterian Cemetery Board constructed a columbarium at the base of the U-shaped roadway through the cemetery. Finished in early 2008, the graceful limestone-and-granite structure stands more than five feet high. Its north and south wings house 192 niches, and space is available to expand it in later years, if needed, to at least double the current size.
Alexandria’s Presbyterian Cemetery is neither the largest nor the oldest cemetery in the United States, but it is of particular interest because the history reflected in its graves extends back in time to the origin of our country, from a vantage point intimately connected with the nation’s capital. A cross-section of Alexandria’s citizenry, as represented primarily in its Presbyterian congregations, has been buried there. Some were merchants, some were ship’s captains, and many were veterans of the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War, including those who served for both the North and South. Several gravestones indicate long-term service as elders of the Presbyterian Church, some extending to decades. Among the church leaders are the Reverend Dr. Elias Harrison, the congregation's fourth minister, and members of his family. In addition, a half-dozen mayors of Alexandria, numerous members of the city's governing council, and at least one member of the U.S. House of Representatives (Lewis McKenzie), are interred in its hallowed ground.
Relief Fire Company Engine House
The Relief Fire Company — a fire house, at the Meeting House? Yes, it is true, and while we do not know what the Relief Fire Company’s engine house looked like, we do know that it housed two fire engines and that it was located here for four decades beginning in 1794. We also know that the engine house possessed direct access to Fairfax Street, a requirement stated in writing, and that it was located immediately to the north east of the Meeting House. The Alexandria Relief Society, which owned the fire engines, had been formed as the town’s third volunteer fire association, with a large number of its members drawn from our congregation, in 1788 (McKenney 1958, Hart 2007). Alexandria’s other early fire associations — Friendship Fire Company, dating from 1774; Sun Fire Company, dating from 1775; and Star Fire Company, dating from 1805 — stored their engines at Market Square or on in the churchyard of Christ Episcopal Church.
The structure that housed the two engines was not large, as fire engines in the days of hand-pumped engines were not large, and volunteers were required to keep personal gear and equipment at home or at their place of work, so storage requirements were limited to accommodating the engines. To get some idea of the size of fire engines in those days, visit the hand-pumped engine dating from 1851 at the Friendship Fire Company Museum on South Alfred Street — though nothing like the size of today’s engines, this engine is significantly larger than the earlier ones housed in the Meeting House churchyard. Both of the earlier-model engines stored at the Meeting House would probably just about fit into the space now occupied by the air conditioning unit located to the north of the bell tower.
The Meeting House churchyard was a good location for engines to service the south side of town — Fairfax Street then served as Alexandria’s "Main Street", so many important businesses were nearby; the churchyard sits on relatively high ground and it is much easier to haul an engine down a hill than up; and our bell was the only one in town from 1790 to 1817, so it served as the communication’s system for the general public as well as a call to worshippers that services would soon begin.
When the Meeting House was expanded to include a narthex following the 1835 fire, the engine company relocated a block further north on Fairfax Street. Eventually the engine company relocated to Prince Street. The two structures the company subsequently built there both still stand — the older Relief Fire Company station, at 319 Prince Street, dates from 1852 and now serves as a residence; Relief Fire and Engine Company No. 1, at 317 Prince Street, dates from 1915 and remains an active unit of the Alexandria Fire Department.
The congregation had a lecture room that served multiple uses from the early 1830s to the 1860s. It was located in a one-story structure on the southeast corner of Duke and Royal streets that extended 19.5 feet east-west and 53 feet north-south. The structure was subsequently incorporated into the current larger one on the same lot, which is today the residence of Fred and Susan Morhart, members of our congregation.
Lecture rooms — church facilities bearing that name — were fairly common in the nineteenth century among congregations whose places of worship, like our Meeting House, were free-standing single-room structures. The lecture room provided a multi-purpose space that was used for classrooms, prayer services, meetings and gatherings of all sorts that demanded less space than the Meeting House. Congregation records indicate that among the many events that took place in our Lecture Room were weekday prayer meetings, meetings of Presbytery, regular meetings of Alexandria’s Union Benevolent Society, our own Monthly Concert (an informal worship service), and prayer services conducted throughout the week, probably for Union soldiers, during the Civil War. Alexandria’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church utilized a similar one-story, one-room Lecture Room during the nineteenth century. It was located at the northeast corner of South Pitt and Duke Streets, site of that congregation’s current Wilmer Memorial building.
Throughout the 1850s and early 1860s, the congregation sought a lot closer to the Meeting House on which to build a new Lecture Room, but a suitable property was never purchased.1The Lecture Room at Duke and Royal streets was sold to Thomas Dwyer in October of 1864, but still used for congregational activities throughout the end of the decade. When the congregation’s post-Civil War communicant membership size diminished to about half its pre-war numbers, the demand for such a facility declined and did not re-emerge until the middle of the twentieth century with the reestablished congregation.
1The search for that suitable property was completed, in a manner of speaking, in 1957, when the residence immediately across the street from the Meeting House, at 322 (now incorporated in 320) South Fairfax Street, was purchased by forty members of the congregation for such use as the congregation might decide was appropriate. An appropriate use was never found, and the property was sold in 1968.
Until recently, members of Presbyterian congregations provided residences for their ministers. Such a facility was termed a parsonage or manse. Flounder House was constructed as the parsonage for the Rev. Dr. Isaac Stockton Keith in 1787, and continued to serve as such from that time through the dissolution of the congregation at the close of the next century. At times during the nineteenth century, clergy lived in a manse elsewhere and rented the parsonage to others. The Rev. Dr. Elias Harrison, whose wife died only four years into their marriage, eventually lived with a daughter and her family on Pitt Street. The Rev. James M. Nourse, who served the congregation from 1885 to 1889, resided with his family at 518 Duke Street.
The practice of providing a manse for clergy continued into the twentieth century. When the re-established congregation called its first installed minister, the Rev. Dr. Kenneth G. Phifer in 1950, a manse was provided for his family at 122 North Alfred Street (the structure has since been replaced). The Phifer family relocated to a second manse at 406 West Braddock Road in 1952. When the Rev. Dr. William R. Sengel answered the congregation’s call in 1960, a manse was provided for his family at 2414 Ridge Road Drive, where they lived until 1980. Sale of that manse enabled the Meeting House to financially support creation of the City of Alexandria’s Guest House and Alexandria Community Shelter facilities; creation of Westminster at Lake Ridge retirement community in Lake Ridge, Virginia; make repairs to the Meeting House in 1987; and create William and Marian Sengel Scholarships for students from foreign countries at Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Virginia and at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut.