Yeocomico ChurchEdit profile
Yeocomico Church is an historic church in Westmoreland County in the U.S. state of Virginia. The original wooden structure was built in 1655. It was replaced in 1706 by a structure built of locally fired bricks. It was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1970.
The author John Dos Passos is buried in the cemetery of the church.Details
Like most early churches in Virginia, Yeocomico Church’s parish membership has changed as the population of Westmoreland County population grew or shifted. A brief outline shows this:
- 1653: Part of Nominy Parish: Westmoreland County established
- 1661: Upper Nominy Parish became Appomattox Parish
- 1662: Became upper part of Potomac Parish
- 1662: Lower parish church of Nominy Parish that was renamed Cople Parish before 1668 .
It is the only remaining colonial church in Cople Parish and Westmoreland County .
This is the fourth oldest complete church in Virginia preceded by Newport Parish in Smithfield 1680,York-Hampton Parish Church (Grace Church) 1697, and St. Peter’s in New Kent County 1701. The original part of the present building can be assigned a date of 1706 according to a dating brick in the south east wall . The north wing was most likely erected circa 1725 . It is the second church on this site; the earlier building was a wooden structure of “oak timbers, sheathed with clapboards.” . Curiously, parts of the wooden structure, including a corner post inside the east gable and a portion of a beam were found embedded in the walls. It has been suggested with no real proof that the brick walls were erected around the frame of the earlier wooden one, essentially encasing it. It is far more likely that some wooden elements of the earlier church were re-used in the construction of the present brick edifice .
This is a room church that shows a combination of features from the Virginia Gothic tradition, as in Newport Parish and St. Peter’s, New Kent County, combined with the emerging Classical style of the Virginia church of the eighteenth century. Its unique features are:
- The presence of a southwest doorway with an enclosing porch
- The first example of kicked eaves in a colonial church
- The establishment of a baroque juxtaposition of “masses and complex shapes”
- Reduction of exterior decoration to understated elements
- Corbelling of the corners of the church and porch
- A belt course of glazed brick
- Diapering on the porch façade
- A series of brick arches filled with plaster on the porch façade
- Corbels on the gables
- A wicket door
- Brick ornaments of initial plaques, emblem plaques, and a millstone inserted in the chancel upper window .
The church is T-shaped with irregular dimensions and bonds on the brick walls. The bricks themselves were supposedly dug and kilned a hundred yards to the northeast of the church. There is a marker with a brass plaque indicating this in the churchyard . The chancel and west walls of the east-west wing that form the main body of the church and comprise its earliest sections differ significantly in their dimensions. The other structures of the church, the north wing and the porch, show a similar variability.
Also the north wing and the porch are not aligned but offset so that the porch stands far to the west of the north wing . The dimensions of the main building, the north wing, and the porch are singular in being so varied; all other Virginia churches have north-south and east-walls perfectly aligned with equal dimensions. The best consensus is that the church was most likely built as a rectangular edifice in 1706 with the north wing added in the 1720s.
The brickwork is typical of Virginia colonial churches in being laid with a water table, a section standing on the foundation, a brick’s length wider than the walls that are nineteen inches thick. The transition from the water table to the walls is made with an ovolo, a convex ¼ round, molded brick. As is the custom, English bond is present on all of the water table. The walls, however, are varied in their brickwork with some sections being laid in Flemish bond, other sections in English bond, and still other sections in irregular, mixed bond. Flemish bond is used regularly on the porch and most of the south wall. English bond is used on the upper eastern part of the south wall, the east and west gables, two sections of the north wall and the chancel wall. The north wing is a mixture of Flemish and irregular bonds. Glazed headers are used with some regularity in the walls as is typical with Flemish bond, but some sections show an irregular use of this feature also
All of the walls show extensive repointing and other repairs to the brick and mortar. These may be of late nineteenth or twentieth century origin as Meade reports in an 1838 visit that few repairs were evident . The present edifice, however, shows alterations to almost all of the surfaces: south wall of porch; west wall of porch; upper right part of south wall; south wall under window and lower left corner; vertical line between window and eastern doorway; water table between window and eastern doorway; chancel wall on east; chancel gable; chancel water table; north wall of chancel around small window; north gable apex; west wall lower left; north wall of nave ; west wall of nave.
The location of and features of the doors make this church an interesting study in the transition from the Gothic room church to the Classical room church in Virginia.
Inside the south porch is a wicket door, the only known one in an American colonial church. It consists of five vertical sections and three horizontal sections each divided by battens. The smaller door is located within the middle three battens vertically and the central one horizontally. Cyma reversa mouldings are used on the battens. In the 1960s, the area around the doorway’s segmental arch was covered with a layer of plaster. The doorway’s wooden molding is of a cyma reversa, reverse S, curve. On the hinge side is a large wooden peg that keeps the upper hinge from pulling out of the frame. The hinges consist of thick pintles at the top and bottom of the left side of the door. The door is said to weigh one-thousand pounds. The door is six feet wide and eight feet high and is of two thicknesses. There is a large, horizontal board at the top, then two small boards, and at the bottom four more horizontal boards. The outer door is held in place by large strap hinges that are obviously hand made. The inset wicket door also has a pair of strap hinges that are miniature images of the larger door with similar construction from horizontal boards. There is a single deadbolt on the inside of the door .
The door frame for this opening is highly altered in almost every detail with the exception of the basic size. The door itself may be original but is almost certainly of old if not of colonial origin. It consists of a pair of narrow, white battened doors opening at the center. Each door has a pair of vertical recessed panels on the top and bottom half, comprising four panels on each door. The brick arch is obviously a replacement, but the wooden door trim consisting of two vertical frames surmounted by a horizontal board bearing a chamfer and lamb’s tongue molding may be of colonial age. The vertical frame members extend beyond the lintel to the bottom of the brick arch. The space between the arch and the top board is filled with flat plaster. The sill is a simple wooden one. In all likelihood, this opening had a pediment of unknown appearance in colonial days. It is the only door in the church that has a lock and key. These are of modern origin.
This opening on the end of the north wing consists of a full width, battened door bearing four vertical, recessed panels similar to the south door. The frame and brickwork surrounding it are probably reworked. This is especially evident in the brick framing on the top that is now a simple course of Flemish bond. The wooden door frame consists of three sets of flat boards, becoming progressively narrower toward the doorway. There is a bevel between the outermost frame member and a semi-round molding between the two inner boards. Both the north and south doors are secured by strap hinges on the inside.
The original window openings are difficult to ascertain due to successive and significant reworkings of the walls since 1900. Despite this, the general form of the windows is in all probability similar to the present openings. The general form most likely follows that of St. Peter’s Church in New Kent county that has leaded diamond-shaped leaded panes set in square casement windows, though, these too are reproductions from fragments discovered on the site. Diamond-paned windows were in common use in England since the 1630s. The present windows are clearly not colonial and reflect changes in fenestration during the nineteenth century..
The rectangular windows on the south, east, north wing of the east wall, the west wall, and all walls in the north wing are similar. They consist of two rectangular, facing guillotine sashed windows covered by heavy wooden shutters painted dark green and fixed with wrought iron H or H-L hinges. The shutters are not of colonial origin. The east façade had two window openings: a large rectangular one that is 9’ wide and 8’ 2” high with 16 over 16 glass panes and a circular window above it with an inner section in quarters and an outer section in eighths. The circular window, in particular, is of uncertain authenticity as it is claimed that until restorations in 1930 it contained not a the present type of window but either plastered over stone and rubble or, most curiously, a millstone All of the other windows have 12 over 12 glass panes. The single south window is 7’ 2” wide and 8’ high white the north wing has two smaller windows on its east and west walls and another it its north face. The frames for all the windows are flat with painted wood. The wooden, bottom sill projects slightly from the frame. All have brick sills with ovolo cast bricks marking them.
The interior of the church has been extensively reworked and little remains, either physically or stylistically, from colonial times. It is painted white on all surfaces with the exception of the tops of the railings.
The chancel still remains in the east wing and has some reconstructed colonial features. It is on a platform raised a foot or so from the church floor. On either side of the window opening are simple rectangular tablets bearing on the left The Lord’s Prayer above the Apostles’ Creed and on the right Exodus XX (The Ten Commandments) under which is printed the Summary of the Law. In the middle is a reredos, obviously of non-colonial origin with an opening for the window incorporated within it. It bears, from the top down: 1) a cross placed so as to intersect center of the circular window; 2) a truncated tympanum, 3) a square-columned pilaster on either side of the window, and 4) a bottom forming a flat window sill. The chancel is physically separated from the rest of the church by 4-foot-tall (1.2 m) vertical panels a few feet north and south of the window openings and a rail with 8 turned balusters on either side and a central opening. There are south and north facing seats in the space between the side panels and the outer walls, on the north a built-in slip pew and on the south a short bench.
On the right, or south, is the pulpit, reader’s desk, and clerk’s desk, the reader’s desk supposedly made from portions of the original pulpit. The reader’s desk stands just in front of (north) of the main pulpit. All of this stands to the west side of the south window on a raised platform but, unlike the chancel, has no separating rail. Between the chancel and the raised area for the pulpit is a small organ enclosed by vertical panels. Behind the organ are two choir pews facing north. In front of the clerk’s desk is the baptismal font. To the west of the raised pulpit are two rows of three slip pews with a central aisle. The rest of the ground level of the church is taken up by rows of slip pews facing south in what is essentially a nave area<Rawlings 55>.
The present aisles were most likely demarcated in 1824 but may have been established as late as 1873. Originally there were galleries in both the north and west wings, but only the north remains. The balusters there are probably original, and the gallery itself is largely colonial. The present brick floors are clearly not of colonial age as is the case with the raised platforms for the chancel and pulpit.
The ceiling resembles the general form of the original but is a reconstruction from numerous repairs, particularly in 1928 and 1939. It is a compass ceiling with two tie beams. The 1706 ceiling was of “hand-riven oak” laid on rafters and collar beams. It has been replaced by a clapboard ceiling matching the general features of the north wing. The tie beams, that are marked with a lamb’s tongue and chamfer, are original while the roof trusses were replaced in the 1820s. The beam farthest north bears the figures “iiii” and the beam farthest south is a clumsy insertion. The porch trusses may be original. A new shingle roof was installed in 1954.
The communion table is the oldest in the state and is of undoubtedly an original feature of this church. It is a walnut table with dimension of 65” x 30”. It has baluster-like, robust legs and a bottom rail on all four sides. The molding of the edge of the upper rail is a reversed S (cyma reversa). Reportedly it was used as a chopping block by an American patrol during the war of 1812, and it shows a documented disregard of the sacerdotal nature of communion tables in early American churches cited by Upton as including: use as a desk for in-church schools, use as a hat table, instances of their being “pushed around carelessly,” going so far that stray dogs stole the communion bread and even urinated on the table legs. Hence, regulations were passed that the table in each church must be located on the east wall and that a protective rail be erected around it. The use of any church as a school, in particular, is puzzling because most colonial vestries scrupulously avoided using the church even for parish business meeting in a separate vestry house close by a church or in the room formed by bell towers such as at St. Peter’s, New Kent County. The vestry house for this church remained as a ruin just outside the west wall until 1820.
The baptismal font of gray polished marble is original to the church. It is octagonal in shape and now stands on a painted, white sandstone pedestal of unknown origin that is not original. Presently it is placed on the far northwest corner of the platform holding the pulpit. It was most probably, like that of all but three surviving fonts for colonial churches, made without a pedestal and placed on a table inside the church instead. Upton notes that it closely resembles baptismsl bowls in books of standardized fonts common in England at th time.
Other objects are also associated with the church from colonial days. The silver-plated chalice is probably and earlier one that has been “reworked.” There is a sundial to the south of the church either donated or fabricated by Philip Smith in 1717. Five colonial grave markers are spaced throughout the churchyard: in 1963, three were illegible and two were table tombs moved from “Wilmington” .
The church is surrounded by a wall of modern origin, one of several replacements. In 1838 this wall is reported by Bishop Meade as “mouldering away” while the obviously old sections of the wall may be “very old”. The present gates may have been present in 1920 as a painting of that date shows similar gates in place. Colonial churches only sporadically had graveyards such as this one enclosed by walls as most parishioners tended to inter their dead on their own plantations or farms.
The quaintness of this edifice derives not only from the Tudor swag (kicked gables) at the eaves, the south porch, the porch arches, and wicket door, but also from fanciful embellishments to the building in the form of unique door pilasters and brick plaques.
The wicket door has pilasters on either side unseen in other Virginia colonial churches. Each pilaster consists of the following structure from the bottom at the water table to the top: water table – 5 bricks (identical in height to rest of the water table); border of beveled brick; pillar – 11 convex bricks one brick wide; a torus- shaped border brick; a pillar of 8 horizontally convex bricks; a border brick of an ovolo with a flat edge on top; the apex of two bricks in the form of a flattened arrow; and a tip of a half-sphere one-half brick wide .
By contrast, the southeast door has a simple, rectangular pilaster consisting of bas-relief column extending from the water table to the top edge of the door. It is flat and 1 ½ bricks wide. From bottom to top it contains: a column of 8 bricks; a beveled heading; a column of 9 bricks; a torus heading; a column of 5 bricks; an ovolo heading with a flat top.
Even more curious is the presence of patterns of glazed bricks and various plaques bearing initials and enigmatic symbols. As already mentioned, the porch gable contains glazed headers in a diamond shape (diapering) and a glazed header barge line (a diagonal line of bricks following the barge boards on the gable), but these embellishments are unevenly spaced so that the diamond is clearly off-center . This irregularity is true for the use of glazed headers throughout the structure.
The plaques bearing initials, dates, and idiosyncratic symbols are also most unusual and distinctive to this church. They are:
- An S and G were once said to be on porch gable but no longer evident.
- Porch gable: the initials S—G—M placed in separate bricks surrounding a brick bearing the image of a thistle.
- Southeast doorway: R.L. carved in brick.
- South Wall: 1706 IGI – below the G an English rose (originally placed over nearby, south, doorway).
- Chancel Wall: Initials – IB , IS , WL , IS , IC , IT , AD , TB (Js for John or Joseph): Star between the I and B and T and S is a flower.
- Chancel above circular window has initials of vestrymen and workers of 1928.
All of these plaques have an ovolo sill and some, such as the date plaque have a completeinset of molded brick. The initials on the porch and over the southeast doorway are incised while the others are in bas-relief.
A number of anecdotes have been related about the church and the churchyard according to local tradition. It was reportedly used as a barracks during the American Revolution and was, like most other Anglican churches, abandoned after the Disestablishment. It is alleged that the churchyard was used to slaughter animals by the American soldiers. The communion table was used as a chopping block although its surface was later restored. It was a ruin by the War of 1812 when it was again inhabited by an “American patrol” who used the baptismal fort as a drinking bowl that was carried away and found on a nearby farm . They also allegedly made unspecified repairs to the brick walls. In 1844, a local congregation of Methodists sued to take possession of the church, but it legally reverted to the Episcopalians who still use it as an active church. Services are held on Sundays at 11:00, and the church is currently open the last Saturday of summer months from 10:00 to 12:00 for guided tours.
In 1838, when Bishop Meade visited, the church showed evidence of few repairs although the original roof may have been present. Major repairs to the brickwork, windows, and roof ware performed in 1928 and, at that time, an initial plaque was installed above the chancel’s round window. Electricity was added in 1947 and a heating system in 1949. The roof shingles were replaced in 1954. Ameslee Hall, the new vestry hall with architectural features compatible with Yeocomico Church, was added several years ago.
All in all, Yeocomico Church is a colonial artifact of great interest and value. Architecturally, it is a transition from the Gothic featured room churches of seventeen century Virginia to the Georgian, classically featured churches characteristic of the Virginia vernacular church. It shows a movement from the “massiveness of . . . earlier churches” toward a “baroque feeling for masses and complex shapes”, with unique characteristics such as the southwest porch and the pronounced kicked eaves derived from English architectural traditions.
Rawlings states: ““While the greater part of the church, of course, owes a great deal to both the late Gothic and early Classical manners of building, much of it also derives from the naïve and primitive skills and ways of its early artificers, who built an ornamented their church in much the same natural and God-fearing way . . . Yeocomico today is still a relatively a remote spot that is blessedly not too much overcome by latter day sophistication.. “When it is said that Yeocomico Church is fascinating, quaint, and artless beyond compare, it must also be said that it is equally perplexing, particularly as to its original shape and masonry. . .”. The contribution of local craftsmen, whether they were hodgepodge architects or whimsical bricklayers, is what gives the building its characteristic charm, the feature that remains in the mind of the viewer the peculiar impression of naïf elements coupled with mysteries regarding its many enigmatic features.Bibliography
- Brock, Henry I. (1930). Colonial Churches in Virginia. Richmond, Va.: Dale press.
- Meade, William (1995). Old Churches, Ministers, and Families of Virginia. Philadelphia: Genealogical Publishing Co, Inc, 1847.
- Mason, George C. (1945). Colonial Churches of Tidewater Virginia. Richmond, Virginia: Whittet and Shepperson.
- Rawlings, James S. (1963). Virginia’s Colonial Churches: An Architectural Guide. Richmond, Virginia: Garrett and Massie.
- Upton, Dell (1997). Holy Things and Profane: Anglican Parish Churches in Colonial Virginia. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
- "The Episcopal Churches of Cople Parish." (2008) <http://www.copleparish.org/>.