The Church of the Presidents

Church Hopping, Featured — By on October 27, 2009 at 12:00 pm

Church: St. John’s Church Lafayette Square

St. John's Church Lafayette Square / Notice the neoclassical columns reminiscent of the Parthenon / Photo by Stephanie Nikolopoulos

St. John's Church Lafayette Square / Notice the neoclassical columns reminiscent of the Parthenon / Photo by Stephanie Nikolopoulos

Nickname: The Church of the Presidents

Location: Across from the White House

Website: http://www.stjohns-dc.org/

Architect: The church was built by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who, although he was born in England, is known as the father of American architecture.  He also rebuilt the White House and the Capitol after the War of 1812.  Even more esteemed than St. John’s is his Baltimore Basilica, which was the United States’ first Roman Catholic Cathedral.

Built: 1815

Civil Rights History: In August 1963, St. John’s Rev. John C. Harper sent to his parishioners a letter that read: “This church building is open, as it has always been, to all who want to worship here; the ministry of this parish is extended to any who seek it; our fellowship one with another has no limitations whatsoever.”  During the March on Washington, in which Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, more than 700 people met at St. John’s.  As early as 1840 the church had been a place where African Americans had gotten married.

Presidential History: Known as “The Church of the Presidents,” St. John’s has had every president of the United States come through its doors since its first service in October 1816 was held.  Pew 54 is President’s Pew.

Current Claim to Fame: President Obama and his family celebrated Easter 2009 here.

Exterior design: Much like America’s politics was founded upon the democratic ideals that emerged in ancient Greece, The Church of the Presidents implements architecture rooted in classical principles.  St. John’s was originally designed in the shape of a Greek cross, which features equally sized arms, but later alterations turned it into the more common Latin cross.  Like a Greek Orthodox cathedral, St. John’s also features a domed ceiling.  This neoclassical design emphasizes balance, equality, and simplicity.

President James Monroe authorized $100 of public funding towards the purchase of the bell that’s found in the steeple.  It was cast by none other than Paul Revere’s son, and was installed not just for religious purposes but also to be an alarm.

St. John's Lafayette Square / Notice the pediment, a triangular shape found in neoclassical architecture / Photo by Stephanie Nikolopoulos

St. John's Lafayette Square / Notice the pediment, a triangular shape found in neoclassical architecture / Photo by Stephanie Nikolopoulos

Interior design: Latrobe designed the sanctuary so that the pulpit was centered and could easily be seen from all angles.  The altar, on the other hand, was not easily visible.

The church has changed significantly since Latrobe’s times.  In the 1880s, James Renwick, who in the 1850s had designed St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, increased the physical size of the church, notably extending the chancel (space around the altar).  A remarkable series of stained glass windows were also added during this time.

Then, in 1919, the architectural firm McKim, Mead & White stepped in for renovation.  The firm had previously done work on the White House, and came in to fill the church with light by both installing a new lighting system and adding and enlarging windows.  They redecorated the entire church, modifying the narthex (lobby) and installing marble in Renwick’s chancel.

For information on the painted and stained glass windows, visit St. John’s website devoted to the topic.

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    10 Comments

  • Leslie says:

    I love how the Orthodox architecture was implemented and symbolized the ideals of democracy from Ancient Greece. didn’t know about this! Next time I go to the capital, I will have to visit the church! Thank you!

  • John Pattison says:

    This if fascinating stuff. Thanks for bringing this to us.

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