December 26: Richmond On Fire

2016/12/26 § 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.

Although in other projects Mills would have greater success in adapting the Classical vocabulary to new uses; the Monumental Church remains a bizarre experiment.  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 (although never as crisp and commanding as those by his peer, William Strickland).  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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