During a performance on the night after Christmas, 1811, fire destroyed the Richmond Theatre, killed many citizens, and left this city in mourning. Those who were left dazed by the sudden horrors they’d witnessed and survived acknowledged the heroic efforts of a local slave, Gilbert Hunt. Standing outside of a window under flames and falling debris, Hunt caught several women who were handed to him by Dr. James McCaw, a local physician. Before the building nearly collapsed around them, Hunt pulled McCaw to safety; miraculously, they escaped.
The city arranged to purchase the site and agreed to bury the victims, many of whom were charred or reduced to ashes, at the site. Their remains were placed in two mahogany coffins. It was soon decided to commemorate the lives of those lost by erecting a church over them.
Robert Mills, Thomas Jefferson’s sole architectural student, laid out the plans of this
Greek Revival structure. Mills later designed the Washington Monument and the White House of the Confederacy. When the church opened in 1814, it was known as Monumental Episcopal Church and remained such until 1965. Chief Justice John Marshall and a young Edgar Allan Poe were a couple of its well-known parishioners.
The names of the dead are engraved on the memorial stone of the portico, as well as on the tablet next to the entrance of the church.
The VCU Medical Center (formerly Medical College of Virginia) has fully developed around the church. However, while standing inside the cast iron fence and the grounds, it’s easy to ignore the massive structures that now encapsulate it as well as the hustle and bustle of Broad Street that pass by.
The area creates a quiet, serene environment, so one is poised to stop and respect the purpose of the memorial. In 1814, the city decided to mark the resting area of those lost so suddenly and violently; today, those grounds continue to direct reverence.
In 1969, the church, located at 1224 E. Broad Street, was noted as a National Historic Landmark by the National Register of Historic Places. It is now owned by the Historic Richmond Foundation.