Preservation Work at St. John's Highlighted

Link to article on: Richmond Times-Dispatch, Monday May 8, 2017

This is a question most churches don’t have to face:

So, about those bones found buried beneath a corner of the church; who do you reckon that was?

However, at a place as old and historic (and surrounded by as many graves) as St. John’s Church in Church Hill, it wasn’t totally a surprise when workers beginning a foundation repair project last October uncovered human remains.

The grounds around the church that Patrick Henry made forever famous in 1775 when he stood in the sanctuary and said, among other things, “Give me liberty or give me death” were Richmond’s first public cemetery.

Thin slate tombstones and elaborate monuments — some with “table tops” to protect the graves from cows, hogs and dogs in the olden times before there were fences — are scattered across the churchyard, which is the final earthly resting place for an estimated 1,300 to 1,500 people. Some graves are marked, some not, and stones have been moved over time or fallen over.

Further complicating matters is that the church, which was built in 1741, has undergone numerous expansions over the centuries, meaning additions were built on top of ground previously used for burials.

“We had suspected we were going to see something,” said Sarah F. Whiting, executive director of the Historic St. John’s Church Foundation.

In fact, three sets of human remains in unmarked graves were discovered in preparation for the underpinning project, although the workers were able to avoid two and leave them undisturbed.

The third set of remains, however, was found under a wall and needed to be removed by archaeologists from the James River Institute for Archaeology.

The remains were sent to the Smithsonian Institution’s anthropology department, where tests determined the person in question was a white man, 23 to 25 years of age. There was evidence he was buried wearing a copper necklace, an expensive item of the day, and his teeth had many cavities, reflective of a high-sugar diet, another sign of high social status. His vertebrae showed evidence of horseback riding.

St. John’s set to work trying to determine the man’s identity.

The remains were found beneath the northeast corner of the church, part of an addition built in 1829. Some of the coffin nails were machine-cut and machine-headed, meaning the earliest possible date of burial was 1805, when such nails became commonly used.

So, presumably, the man was buried between 1805 and 1829.

Volunteer archivists are poring over church records and have narrowed the possibilities to a few names.

The Smithsonian requested to keep the bones for another five years for study, then will return them to be reinterred at St. John’s.

“Every inch of this place has something to tell,” Whiting said. “I mean every inch.”

Preserving history is a full-time job — and a pretty expensive one — and no place better exemplifies that concept better than St. John’s Church, a National Historic Landmark.

The church is undoubtedly one of Richmond’s most notable landmarks as it dates back to the birth of the city and of America.

It traces its roots to the founding of Henrico Parish in 1611 and was built on its current site — a square block fronting on Broad Street bounded by 24th, 25th and Grace streets — in 1741.

The mere fact that the building is still here is remarkable in itself because it’s not easy to maintain any structure that’s been around in four different centuries. To maintain a historically significant building in a historically appropriate manner only adds to the effort and expense.

There’s always a roof to replace, a bell tower to rebuild (the church is on its third, the first two having blown over in storms in 1863 and 1896) or a new piece of history uncovered to investigate or preserve in order to help us better appreciate the generations past — and that goes back well beyond the church founding to when the area was populated by Native Americans — but also perhaps to better understand our own.

There’s always something going on. Whiting said, “Usually, it’s one project at a time,” but sometimes they come in bunches.

Last week, when photographer Bob Brown and I visited the church, we found Amy Swartz — preservation and program director for the foundation — in the churchyard, using a bucket of water and a soft brush to gently wash the Rev. Robert Rose monument, the oldest visible grave marker at the church.

Rose was born in Scotland, immigrated in 1725 to the “New World” and moved in 1749 to Albemarle County, where he was rector of Albemarle parish. He was a minister, yes, but also a planter, businessman, surveyor, doctor and lawyer. He died in 1751 while traveling to Richmond, which is why he wound up in the St. John’s graveyard.

His marker — which includes a description of him as “a man of extraordinary genius” — had fallen into disrepair and work was recently completed to repair cracks that had developed and to stabilize it.

After showing us the Rose monument, Whiting walked us over to the corner of the church where the underpinning work had been completed — and the human remains recovered.

Then it was into the sanctuary where she wanted us to see the newly restored sounding board — the “last surviving witness,” as Whiting put it, to Patrick Henry’s celebrated speech.

It is one of the few original architectural features — save for some wainscoting, hidden structural beams and cut-down pews — that remain.

Sounding boards were placed above or behind a pulpit to project a speaker’s voice in the age before microphones. The hexagonal St. John’s sounding board, which dates to the church’s construction in the 1740s, is secured a few feet above the pulpit and, as far as Whiting knows, is one of only four remaining Colonial-era sounding boards left in Virginia.

The others: Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, Christ Church in Lancaster County, and Aquia Church in Stafford County.

Whiting calls it “one of the most important Colonial icons in Virginia.”

The analysis and restoration conducted by conservator F. Carey Howlett, of Callao, found much of the wooden sounding board’s original splendor was hidden by years and layers of stain and varnish. The sounding board had become so dark that its inlaid sunburst surrounding a human face was barely detectable.

Now, restored to its original form, the sounding board is light in color, and the sunburst radiates.

“It’s back in all its glory,” Whiting said. “It’s the most amazing piece of art.”

A grant from the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Fund for Historic Interiors of the National Trust for Historic Preservation provided the seed money for the initial report. The bill for the actual restoration was $16,000, which was paid by anonymous donors.

Since 2003, the foundation has raised and invested more than $4.5 million in preservation and upgrades to the church and surrounding grounds, Whiting said, and she’s always looking ahead. Conserving the rest of the tombstones and monuments in the graveyard is on her to-do list, as is making sure their stories never die.

“At the foundation, that’s our mission: preservation and education,” she said. “We’ll never be done.”