1214 Wilmer Avenue
Architect, Clifton A. Hall
The church with a Northern twin.
Emmanuel Church began as the dream of two brothers, John and Daniel Kerr Stewart. The two brothers were born on the Island of Bute, near Rothesay, in the West of Scotland. They arrived in Virginia in the 1830s. Finding prosperity in the business of tobacco and cotton, John Stewart accrued enough wealth to purchase the Brook Hill estate in 1842. The financial security of the Stewarts provided for the construction of Emmanuel Church, seven and five-sixths acres of land, salary for the clergy, and presumably the retention of an architect to design the church.
The first organizational meeting of the church took place on March 14, 1859 and was attended by the Stewart brothers and “persons friendly to the establishment of a Protestant Episcopal Church in the neighborhood of Brook The church was built in response to the needs of the Brook Hill community. Prior to the construction of Emmanuel, residents in the vicinity of Brook Hill and the Stewarts at Brook Hill itself were required to make a considerable journey into the city of Richmond to worship.
By November 1859, the building committee had engaged an architect for the new church. Marion Stewart Peterkin (I849-1942), daughter of John Stewart, one of the founders of Emmanuel Church, named Charles Griffith Hall as the architect. She recalled,
“… in 1859, Mr. Charles Hall of Providence, Rhode Island (who was the architect for Dr. Haxall’s house on the corner of Grace and Sixth Streets now known as Dr. McGuire’s house [no longer extant]) appeared with blue prints and estimates, my older sisters scented building, and soon the foundation of both the Rectory and Emmanuel were dug.”
Currently no documentation has been found to firmly establish Charles Hall’s role in the construction of Emmanuel. Architectural historian Michael Comgan who focuses on Ernmanuel in his study of the Gothic style in Virginia antebellum churches attributes the church’s design to another member of the Hall family. Comgan states,
It is not surprising that Emmanuel should manifest some stylistic connections to [Richard] Upjohn, because it was designed by Clion A. Hall 11826-19131, a Boston born architect who established himself in Providence, Rhode Island around 1850, shortly after Upjohn’s Grace Church with asymmetric tower and spire was constructed there.
“The attribution of Emmanuel’s design to Hall would perhaps not be so strong if Hall had not reproduced the design for a church built in Providence only five years later. Hall, a parishioner of Trinity Methodist congregation, chose to reuse his design for Emmanuel Church for the new Trinity Methodist Church, 1864-1865.
“The two churches are very similar in form, volume and detail. While Trinity has aisles under separate roofs and a large pointed window in the facade gable, in all other respects the two churches are die. Obviously Hall who designed churches, schools and public buildings in Rhode Island, considered his design for Emmanuel successful enough to reproduce it for his own congregation.”
The connection between Mrs. Peterkin’s recollection and Mr. Comgan’s attribution is that Charles Hall and Clifton Hall were father and son. The Halls had established a family architectural practice, C.G. Hall & Son, around 1850 in Providence. With the close professional association between father and son, it is logical to assume that the design of Emmanuel is indebted to the Hall family.
In its massing Trinity Church is almost a mirror image of Emmanuel. Although larger, it possesses the same offset tower, and gable-front sanctuary plan as its earlier predecessor. The smooth flowing tower-spire arrangements at both churches are the same, except that the second level at Trinity is more vertical in proportion. The main building of the Providence church has the same broad gabled roof but utilizes a large lancet window in the facade gable, probably to accommodate the church’s lighting needs.
The precedent of this important design is Emmanuel Church at Brook Hill. The resemblance between the two churches is strong enough to mark them as created by the same hand. Comgan’s establishment of the younger Hall as the architect is substantiated by mention of Hall’s work in the South found in his obituary.
The congregation took an unusual step in employing a Northern architect to design the church. Generally a local architect would be called upon for this type of construction. Virginia possessed a number of qualified and talented architects in this period as well as many familiar with the Gothic style. Emmanuel’s choice represents sophistication unique in a country parish.
The foundation was laid in 1859 and was finished in June 1860. The church was consecrated on July 6, 1860. A contemporary account of the ceremony in a local newspaper awarded the following praise, “One of the handsomest church edifices in Virginia has just been completed on Brooke Turnpike, four miles from Richmond, and also a beautiful rectory for the use of clergyman, Rev. Richard Wilmer.”
One of the first individuals contacted by the Stewarts was the Reverend Richard Hooker Wilmer (1816-1900). Wilmer was a native Virginian who had developed a good reputation for his pastoral work and preaching in nearby areas of the state. Wilmer remained at Emmanuel until 1862. On March 6, 1862, Wilmer was consecrated at St. Paul’s Church in Richmond as the second bishop of Alabama.“ He is distinguished as being the only bishop consecrated in the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America.
Emmanuel’s completion in 1860 makes it perhaps the last Gothic revival church built before the beginning of the Civil War. Situated within 12.576 wooded acres on the outskirts of Richmond, Emmanuel was in close proximity to many battles outside the city. In those early years, the church was passed by soldiers of both armies and served occasionally as a hospital. Many Confederate soldiers were buried in the cemetery.
Emmanuel was part of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the Confederate States of America during this time. However Emmanuel was established as a free church and allowed the black community to attend services.
Emmanuel Church represents one of the last examples-if not the last example–of Antebellum Gothic Revival churches in the United States. It is ironic that the last church of this style built before the separation of the country was constructed in the South by a Northern architect. It is an exceptional illustration of the late phase of the Gothic Revival. Emmanuel represents the widespread appeal of the Gothic Revival in the United States. This style was the adopted design of the Episcopal Church. (VDHR)
(Emmanuel Church at Brook Hill is part of the Atlas RVA Project)
Rocket Werks thanks Betty Milligan, who graciously provided a tour of the church and its grounds.
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