December 26: Richmond has a (sad) thing for catching on fire

2012/12/26 § Leave a comment

RichmondTheatre

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)

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You are currently reading December 26: Richmond has a (sad) thing for catching on fire at Clio’s Calendar: Daily Musings on Architectural History.

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