Historic Structures

Christ Church, Washington DC

Date added: November 17, 2010 Categories: Church

In 1811 St. John's Church was the only Episcopal place of worship in Georgetown. The Church had become so crowded "that even gallery seats rented at high rates." (Dorsey, p. 5.) The Church membership was unable to organize to plan an increase in capacity. Therefore, on November 10, 1818, a group of church members, all prominent Georgetown citizens, met at the home of Mr. Thomas Corcoran on Bridge Street (now 3213 M Street) "for the purpose of organizing a new congregation and devising a plan for building an additional Protestant Episcopal Church."

The members of this founding group included; Thomas Corcoran, Clement Smith, Francis Scott Key, John S. Haw, John Myers, Ulyses Ward, James A. Magruder, William Morton, Thomas Henderson and John Pickerell. Twenty-six pew holders signed the original agreement. The services of Reverend Ruel Keith, formerly assistant pastor at St. John's, were engaged. The first services of the newly formed congregation were held at the Lancaster School Building on Beall Street (now O Street), December 13, 1817.

Building of the first church on the site at the corner of Beall and Congress Street was begun May 6, 1818. Minutes of the Potomac Lodge No. 5, A.F. and A.M. dated Tuesday May 12, 1818, record that on the previous day "...a Master Mason's lodge was opened and a procession formed which moved to the Lancaster School where the clergy and citizens joined and then proceeded to the appointed spot where the cornerstone was laid in due form."

There are no records of details of the erection of the building until December 25, 1818: "The new congregation assembled in the new church this day at sunrise; after prayer to the Throne of Grace dismissed." The church was consecrated on the thirtieth of December, and the name Christ Church used for the first time. Total cost for the building, including the lot, was $15,952. It was the largest Episcopal Church in the District.

Little is known stylistically about the church except that it had "an elevated pulpit in the center of the chancel with a simple marble-topped communion table beneath it. Opposite was a gallery where in 1822 two members of the vestry were stationed 'for the purpose of keeping order.'" (Dorsey, p. 6.) The church contained seventy pews.

In 1835 a "Wren-type" steeple was added to the building.

The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), August 24, 1853, reports the following alterations:
The congregation of Christ (Episcopal) Church intend commencing on the first of the ensuing month to remodel and greatly beautify the interior of their edifice. The old fashioned galleries are to be...improved, so as to furnish that portion of the congregation who usually sit there more comfort and convenience. The whole is to be newly painted and the old organ is to be removed to give place to one of larger dimension and stronger, sweeter tones.

The church building remained unchanged until 1867, when it became necessary to remodel and expand the church. A sum of $28,000 was appropriated. During remodeling, the congregation frequently worshipped in the Presbyterian church (probably the one that stood at 30th and M Streets).

City officials authorized the lowering of the grades of both Congress and Beall Streets in 1873. This change in street level necessitated the building of retaining walls and additional steps which impaired the use of the church. The need for a new and larger structure became more and more pressing. In 1885 the vestry decided to erect a new structure. "Plans for a brick Gothic structure drawn by the architectural firm of Casseli and Laws, and a construction bid by William C. Morrison of $38,300 were accepted." The last services held in the old church were July 12, 1885.

The cornerstone of the present church was laid on October 1, 1885; the building was completed and consecrated June 2, 1887. "Architecturally this new church was a gem, a miniature cathedral, its exterior most pleasing to the eye, while its interior, with its stone Gothic arches colored by the rays from the memorial windows, tributes to the memories of the pioneers of early life of the church..."

An electric carillon was donated to the church in 1959 with a total volume equivalent to 100,000 pounds of cast bells. A new organ, installed in 1947, was dedicated by Paul Callaway; another organ was installed in the summer of 1969.

To the south of the main church is Keith Hall, named in honor of the first minister. This was originally the parish hall and is now used as a meeting room. In 1957 the church purchased Linthicum Hall which is a building dating to 1887. This is now used as the parish hall. On November 8, 1964, Christ Church was designated an historic landmark by the Washington Joint Committee on Landmarks.

The interior of Christ Church is illuminated by stained glass windows. The windows were made in Munich, Germany, and installed by German workmen. All are memorials to earlier members of the congregation.

The church itself measures about 90' X 60' with the old parish hall (Keith Hall) at the south end measuring about 30' x 60'. At the northeast corner of the church is a tall bell tower. On the east side of the church the aisle door and the altar (or choir) section project out to the sidewalk line. West of Keith Hall and the altar and transept sections of the church is an addition for kitchen and offices (1923) and a modern chapel (1967). The church has a three-bay facade consisting of one main story. The tower to the east has three floors, plus a two-level open belfry.

The sanctuary is composed of a main north-south nave, 63'-2" long by 26'-9" wide, with lower side aisles 13'-10" wide on each side. On the east side the aisle is separated from the nave by four pointed arches on low, heavy columns; at the north end the fifth bay of this aisle comprises the entrance vestibule below the tower. The west aisle is separated by five pointed arches on similar columns, with a second entrance door at the north end in the north wall. Separated from the nave by a large pointed triumphal arch at the south end is a transept section which extends to the width of the aisles. In the east arm is the organ console and in the west, organ pipes. Beyond this is the altar (or choir) area separated from the transept section by a second large pointed arch. In the center of this area is the altar with its handsome carved wood retable. To the east and west are sections which extend out to the aisle walls. In the eastern section are more organ pipes; the western section contains a passage back to Keith Hall, and west of this, a small robing room.

Attached to the church at the south is the former parish hall, Keith Hall, which now measures 23'-9" wide by 42'-2" long. It is 10" lower than the choir area, and is reached by two descending steps. The hall was originally divided into five bays by north-south roof trusses; now, however, the easternmost bay (9'-10" wide) is filled in by small rooms, air conditioning machinery, and two passageways to the west wing. The west wing contains a large kitchen, offices, practice rooms, and a modern chapel. Keith Hall has a small entrance vestibule at the northeast corner out to 31st Street.

In the tower, there are two enclosed floors above the entrance vestibule measuring 9'-2" by 11' 5-1/2", and two open floors above this for the bells.

The basement is not excavated under the main part of the church. There is, however, a furnace room about 10' wide which runs the width of the church under Keith Hall; carpentry shop under the east aisle; a store room under the tower; and an unfinished room under the northwest corner of the church, which is reached by a narrow passage along the north wall (and from which one can view the crawl space under the nave of the church).

The most striking feature inside the church is the series of German stained-glass windows. In the east aisle there are four windows; in the west aisle, five. All of these are double lancet, with a uniform architectural motif and inscription in the two lower panels. In the main part of the window, above, is the figural scene--continuous from one panel to the other except in the northernmost of the west aisle, which has two separate scenes. Surmounting this, in the apex of each lancet, is an architectural canopy. At the apex, between the two lancets, is an additional light in the form of a quatrefoil, with rosettes and flowers. With the exception noted above, all the windows depict scenes involving the life of Christ. At the north end of the nave are three tall lancets. These are similar to the side windows in design, though taller, and show scenes in the life of Christ. The side lancets have two vertical lights; the central, three- Above the central window is a round bull's-eye window with the Agnus Dei. The clerestory windows in the nave all depict individual male or female saints. There are twelve on the east (three per bay) and fifteen on the west (three per bay). Above the altar at the south end are three single lancets showing the angel at Christ's tomb in the center, and a woman in each of the side windows. At the east end of the transept section is another stained-glass window, a large lancet in three vertical sections depicting the Virgin and Child, with figures of Hope and Faith at the sides. In the south gable above the triumphal arch is a small round window depicting the dove of the Holy Spirit.

Another prominent decorative feature is the carving of the capitals in the nave. These are of robust floral design, all rather similar. On the east side there are three; on the west side, four. At the north and south ends of the arches, the last arch is supported at the wall by a curious bracket or console. This console is composed of two columns about 6" in diameter, whose two capitals together are the same width as the single, but larger, capitals of the nave, and whose lower ends curl up against the wall. On the nave side of each main pier is a tall colonnette which extends up to support the roof trusses. These terminate in floral caps similar to the nave columns. In the aisles, the truss ends rest on molded consoles at the wall and the nave capitals on the inside.

Below the clerestory windows is a molding course running the length of the nave. On the east side only this terminates in a floral block at the north end. At the north end of the nave are several commemorative tablets.

A large baptismal font of marble (octagonal in shape, 24" across) is near the northeast corner.

The nave pews are original. These are made of dark wood with a simple scroll at the arm ends. Each pew has a shield-shaped number plaque of white porcelain with numbers in black and gold.

In the transept section, and altar area, are other decorative features. The triumphal arch and the two aisle arches have floral caps and colonnettes. The two aisle arches to the transept section are closed by wrought iron two-leaf gates. At this end of the nave there is also a handsome brass eagle lectern (1885) to the west; and to the east an elaborate brass pulpit (of about the same date), decorated on the front with a large winged angel. The choir stalls and two principal chairs in the transept area are Gothic in design, with finials and tracery.

The most sumptuous decoration of all, however, is the carved wooden retable against the south wall of the altar area- The retable has a carved tracery dado about 4-1/2' high; above that, in the center, is a wooden aedicula containing a brass cross and, in the tympanum above, a carved winged putto head. Two narrower niches flank the aedicula on the left and right. In the niches on the left are wooden statues of Matthew and Mark; on the right, Luke and John. Each statue--with its attribute at its feet--is 29" tall, excluding the base. On the base of the statue of St. John is a small metal plaque which reads: "Mayer & Co. Munich/royal eccles. art establisht." with a royal crest to the left. Between the paired lancets on each side is a carved panel of grapes and wheat. At either end of this section is a carved standing angel. All of these figures stand on low columns. At the extreme ends of the retable are carved, low-relief panels showing four music-making angels. Those on the east end hold a lute and triangle; those on the west, a sackbut and harp. On the east and west sides of the altar area are carved stalls of similar design. The four on the east side, although simpler, have a tall pier at each end capped with finials and an angel. (One of the angels, on a column about 6'-6" from the ground, has been stolen.) The grouping on the west side is more elaborate. Here, four stalls flank a central section composed of a shelf supported by a winged angel's head, and above, a sculpted scene of two disciples receiving communion from Christ. The canopy over the sculptures is crowned with finials and two angels. In niches above the stalls on the left, the Ten Commandments appear on two brass plaques; and, similarly, on the right, the Lord's Prayer. At each end of this stall grouping, 6'-6" from the ground, is a column base for an angel (both angels have been stolen). Since the ends of the altar stalls overlap the ends of the retable somewhat awkwardly, it may be that the retable and the stalls were made separately and then put together here.

The altar table itself is a handsomely carved piece. The openings around it form a miniature Gothic cloister. The altar rail is supported by brass floral balusters.