December 26: Richmond has a (sad) thing for catching on fire
2012/12/26 § Leave a comment
On this day in 1811 the Richmond Theatre burned.
The tall building had been completed only the year before. Almost six hundred people were gathered to see a double-feature of sorts, but early in the evening, during a scene change behind the lowered stage curtain, one of the backdrops was set alight by candles in a chandelier. Although the timber, canvas and oil-painted material was great fuel, the fire might have been snuffed. But no one in a position to do much of anything knew about the fire until it spread through layers and layers of sets and then started chewing at the building. A great brick box full of wooden furnishings and finishes, the building did not have a chance. Nor did a large portion of the audience: 72 people perished in the fire.
The building was a loss, and no one had much of a stomach to rebuild a theatre on the site anyhow (another theatre would be built at another location in 1819). A monument to the dead was proposed and carried out by local architect Robert Mills. It is an odd thing: the Monumental Church is both worship center and memorial for the fire victims. Mills designed a curious octagonal plan covered by a low saucer dome with a lantern; boxy projections appear on four sides. The front portico holds the actual monument inscribed with victims’ names; their remains are gathered in the crypt below.
With later projects Mills would have greater success in adapting the Classical vocabulary to new uses; this thing is just kind of bizarre. It’s both Greek and Roman with a bit of Egypt tossed in for good measure. Is it a short polygonal Pantheon? A wide Tower of the Winds? An imperial mausoleum? Or one of those rare Erectheum-type mash-up temple-things? Hang on to your hat, since Mills’ original intention, with the subtle-as-a-sledgehammer church steeple, makes it even more of a mystery. His later works are quite a bit more tame, loads more legible. And later, too, he became better known for technical mastery that may have been inspired by his work in Richmond, as Mills was (for a time) the country’s go-to architect for anything fireproof once he mastered techniques that he began mulling in Richmond.
Image: “The Burning of the Theatre in Richmond, Virginia” (from this source)