Saint Luke's Church (Smithfield)
|Location:||Isle of Wight County, Virginia|
|Nearest city:||Smithfield, Virginia|
|Area:||5 acres (2.0 ha)|
|Built:||1632 or 1680s|
|Architectural style:||Room church with Gothicizing details|
|Governing body:||Historic St. Luke's Restoration, Inc.|
|Added to NRHP:||October 15, 1966|
|Designated NHL:||October 9, 1960|
St. Luke's Church, also known as Old Brick Church, or Newport Parish Church, is a historic church building, located in the unincorporated community of Benns Church, near Smithfield in Isle of Wight County, Virginia, United States. The present dedication was ascribed in 1820. It is the oldest surviving brick church in one of the original thirteen colonies that became the United States, and is the earliest extant church building of English foundation in the United States. The church is dated by local sources to 1632 but by published sources to the early 1680s. On October 15, 1966, St. Luke's was designated a National Historic Landmark and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in recognition of its historic and architectural distinction.
Today the building hosts weddings throughout the year and Sunday worship for Christ Episcopal Church is held there some four times a year.
St Luke's Church is a fine example of a post-Protestant Reformation church showing Gothicizing details. The plan is that of a simple single room (29 ft 4 3⁄4 in or 8.96 m × 65 ft 7 3⁄4 in or 20.01 m) with a twenty-foot-square (1.9 m2) tower at the west end. Its three-foot (0.9 m) thick walls are laid in a rough Flemish bond. Buttresses project prominently from three bays of the north and south walls. They have sloping set-offs. At both the east and west end of the church are crow-stepped gables, while unadorned turrets, corbeiled slightly at their bases, decorate the corners of the building.
The Gothic details are seen in the stepped buttresses, the division of the round-topped windows by arches to form Y-tracery, and the use of arches both round and segmental in the east window to create an impression of Gothic tracery. These details have been created in brick. About 99% of the brick in the church today is original.
The interior appointments of St. Luke's were not added until a number of years after completion of the fabric of the building. After 1657, Colonel Joseph Bridger commissioned Giles Driver to complete the interior and his brothers, Charles and Thomas Driver, to complete the work and add the third story to the tower. The roof has been rebuilt a number of times and may originally have had a steeper pitch. The tie-beam timber-truss, closed above the collar beam, has also been rebuilt but research has shown it was based on the original design.
Originally, a gallery, or balcony, existed at the west end of the nave, supported by a massive hewn oak beam. This has been rebuilt, as has been the rood screen in the chancel, or apse, and the square brick tiles in the floor of the church. The original windows were replaced in the 19th century. Those Victorian windows remain in place today. The stained glass windows above the altar were produced in Germany.
Newport Parish dates from the formation of Warrosquyoake plantation. The details of parish and political entities are as follows:
The architecture of Newport Parish Church is a combination of the 17th century room church embellished with Gothic features. Unlike the English Gothic church characterized by separate wings containing the font-nave, celestory choirs, and chancel, the room church reduces these divided spaces into a single rectangular space. All Virginia vernacular churches employ this room structure. In the case of Newport Parish, a simplified form of a rood screen, as in several extant English room churches, separates the nave from the chancel. In fact, in this edifice, the oldest Anglican church in the state, the essential features of the room church are all in place. They are:
Gothic features are principally in embellishments to the structure rather than major structural details:
The church itself is 60 feet (18.4 m) east-west and 1⁄224 feet (7.4 m) north-south in the clear. 1⁄4
The church is laid in Flemish bond in water tables, walls, and tower. The tower is an integral part of the structure unlike that of the Jamestown Church tower whose unfinished mortar joints on its east wall indicate that it was erected after the main church building and the clearly documented, added tower at St. Peter's Church, New Kent County. Unlike any other standing Virginia colonial church, there are two water tables each nine bricks high. The transitions from the water tables are accomplished using beveled bricks. There are no glazed headers in the walls that are 36 inches (910 mm) wide at the foundations, 26 inches (660 mm) thick in the walls, and 30 inches (760 mm) thick in the tower.
Three buttresses with three ramps each support the north and south sides of the church, separating the walls into three bays and a chancel, each of which contains a Y-tracery window. The bevels of the buttresses follow the water table in height, each being nine bricks tall. The church is singular among standing churches in having buttresses: the only other documented buttresses are at the Jamestown Church of 1639 to 1647 and the second Bruton Parish Church of 1680.
During reconstruction of the church after a hurricane in the early 20th century, an original brick was found which had carved into it the number "1632". That brick is now prominently displayed in the church above the altar.
The walls continue for 38 courses above the water tables. Obvious repairs are present throughout the building due to a storm that collapsed the walls in 1887 and include:
Two thousand bricks from the Jamestown Church of 1639- 1647 were included in repairs during the 1890s.
The present roof, restored in the 1950s is constructed internally of massive tie-beams and a plastered ceiling, though the original was most likely a principal rafter roof similar to that of the third Bruton Parish Church. The roof beams are decorated with chamfer and lamb's tongue moldings. The present slate shingles are, of course, not the original roofing material which most likely was cedar shingles or clapboards painted or covered with tar.
The ends of the east gable consist of a corbelled turret on the outside corners with eight crow steps rising to the middle. The crow steps on the west wall are truncated by the presence of the tower and so have only 1½ steps. Other colonial structures with gables are few and include Bacon's Castle(1665) the second Bruton Parish Church, (1680s), and St. Peter's Church, New Kent County (1701) all of which are characterized by Flemish curved gables instead of crow step gables. All of the cornices are modern replacements.
The tower, the only one known to be an original feature of a colonial church in Virginia, stands to the west of the main church building and is 18 feet (5.5 m) east-west and 20 feet (6.1 m) north-south at the outside ground level. It is 60 feet (18 m) tall and consists of three stories. The corners of the first two stories of the three story tower are embellished by rusticated brick quoins of a row of two horizontally raised bricks divided by a projecting row of thin bricks with a vertical V in the center. The third story, presumably added some time after the rest of the tower, is surmounted by a slate shingled, hipped roof with a modern weather vane at the crest. The southern and northern faces of the tower bear a single window on each story. From bottom to top they are: 1) an open oval ellipse three feet horizontally and two feet vertically; 2) a Y-tracery window matching the principal windows; and 3) a compass widow with a brick arch and louvers. The west façade is identical except that the lower story contains a round bricked arch with a simple, whitewashed tympanum above it. The bottom of the tower is open and serves as a porch.
The windows of St. Luke's Church are unique among colonial windows and the major element that gives the edifice a gothic character. The east window is a "great lancet consisting of two tiers of four circular-headed windows." The two bottom courses consist of rows of four round-headed windows above which are a row of gothic arched windows, three diamond-shaped windows, and a pair of elongated, horizontal triangles as spandrels. Each of the east windows as well as the Y-tracery windows in the rest of the church are separated by modillions of molded, rubbed brick consisting of an ovolo (convex) and fillet (flat) shapes and an ovolo sill. There is a small, elliptical window above the great window. The presence of a great window is indicated in a few other, early churches in Virginia, namely St. Peter's, New Kent County (1701) and Upper and Lower Middlesex Country churches (1714 and 1717). Later churches without exception had chancel windows matching the principal windows on the north and south walls.
There are eight lancet windows on the north and south edifices and three on the tower (second story south, west, and north faces) similar in general construction to the great window. They each consist of a pair of steeply arched windows with a single, smaller spandrel window completing the arch and separated with rubbed brick in the form of ovolo and fillet moldings. The sills are also of identical ovolo molded bricks.
The present Tiffany-style, stained glass windows, despite local tradition to the contrary, do not replicate the original material that was diamond-paned, leaded glass. No Virginia colonial church had stained glass windows.
The church displays the first recorded instance of the use of a main west entrance and a south entry placed in the extreme southeast corner of the church. Both doors are recent replacements, and the exact form of the western door is unknown.
The principal entrance is through the tower archway by way of a large, semi-circular arch that is decorated by rubbed brick and am impost three bricks high at the lower end of the arch. The arch itself consists of voussoirs with plastered over, white bricks forming the interior of the arch. Above the arch is a primitive, triangular tympanum the lower line of which extends beyond the raked borders. It is embellished by a fascia on the outer course with a fillet and ovolo on the inner course. It was alternately decorated with white cement, a marble tablet, and now a wash of mortar.
The western inner entrance is now a wicket door patterned after that of Yeocomico Church although presently it is unpainted. Previously, there were two central opening, compass-headed doors at the outer entrance of the porch arch. The southern entrance is presently a square-headed, battened door with decorative, molded bricks in the shape of an ovolo surrounding it. The images from the Library of Congress site are worth study, for they show in the late 1950s a compass headed door at this entrance that is evidenced by brick repairs above the doorway.
The only written record of the interior is from 1746 in which the wives of justices and vestrymen were assigned a box pew in the northern corner of the chancel and young women of the parish were assigned their former pews. There is one original baluster (the second from the left end on the altar rail). The rood screen is based on footings discovered in the 1950s while the sounding board, that is 17th century in origin, was found in 1894 in a barn at Macclesfield, a nearby plantation. The single baluster and sounding board are the only original interior appointments. The bible which sits upon the altar is also the church's original bible from the early 17th century.
The original interior appointments were long ago destroyed and the present is a restoration. It consists of a square pew of each side of the altar, two box pews west of the chancel screen, and seventeen slip pews in the nave.
The pulpit is a reconstruction three-decker of 20th century origin; Rawlings postulates that a two-decker pulpit originally was built due to the lack of space for a clerk's desk. The sounding board above the pulpit is original, however.
The main aisle is T-shaped and paved with square bricks whose pattern is derived from the original floor. Under the pews are wooden, reproduction floors. At the west end of the church is a gallery that originally had oak balusters and was restored during the 1950s The interior of the tower shows a portion of original plaster under a piece of glass, and it is covered with "mortar wash on the walls and exposed beams". Portions of the wooden interior sills of the second story tower windows may be original. Much of the interior such as the rood screen, the kneeling rail, and a medieval-style bench east of the rood screen, are suppositions based the error prone 1950s restoration.
In the interior is a collection of objects such as a reproduction, wooden baptismal font, various items of furniture, and various ecclesiastical furnishings of period 17th century origin, though not original to the church itself.
All in all, this church is a fascinating structure with gothic embellishments. It is the oldest colonial church in Virginia and demonstrates the progression from the crude, wooden churches of the early 17th century to more permanent brick structures leading to the simple room churches characteristic of the Virginia vernacular church in its full development, such as in Ware Church (1710–1715), a rectangular church with an unadorned exterior and elaborate triangular and semi-circular pediments. Like Yeocomico Church, such features as the bell tower, enclosed west porch, elaborate quoins, and Y-tracery windows belong to a formative period of church building whose features were soon to pass. The present restoration, according to architectural historians, leaves much to be desired in its fanciful and poorly documented elements:
The dating of this church with Gothic elements is a matter of disagreement between local traditions and academic researchers. Local sources insist that the church can be dated to 1632.
The basic argument for 1632 is:
Other evidence calls into doubt the accuracy of these assertions:
General historical data militate against the establishment of such an elaborate edifice in 1632 and generally agree with a date in the 1680s:
It is unlikely that one of these stylistically related buildings predates the others so significantly.
Mason, Rawlings, and Upton all agree that 1632 is far too early a date for this edifice:
Historic St. Luke's is controlled by Historic St. Luke's Restoration, Inc. The Bishop of Southern Virginia, the Rt. Rev. David C. Bane, Jr., was chairman of the board and the Rev. Gary J.M. Barker, rector of Christ Episcopal Church, Smithfield, is the vicar. Christ Church is St. Luke's successor as the Parish Church of Newport Parish. St Luke's congregation left in the 1800's to found Christ Church in downtown Smithfield.
The church hosts a Sunday worship service for Christ Episcopal Church every month that has a fifth Sunday. Also, weddings are held regularly through the year in the church.
As of 2002, the National Park Service (NPS) has declared St. Luke's condition to be threatened because of a townhouse development then being built on the southern boundary of the property. Because there are graves within a few feet of the property line, Historic St. Luke's has no practical means of buffering itself from the new development, short of asking for governmental condemnation of the townhouse project. Another threat listed by the NPS is from the lowering ground water level due to various environmental factors. This had already led to some "small vertical cracking" in the church walls.
As of 2010, there is a restoration project underway with $500,000 sought to be raised for improvements. Over half of this amount has been raised already.
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