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A 2012 book tells the story of the infamous firein which 72 people died.
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Photo courtesy WestView Companies
The recently completed Dr. Waverly M. Cole and Dr. John R. Cook Memorial Terrace at Monumental Church.
This is a many-splendored love story. It’s about the commitment between two people and devotion to a beloved place that arose from tragedy.
It’s about one of the most historic sites in Richmond that more residents and visitors should know about, but perhaps, they didn’t see a way in.
Now, there’s a metaphorical ladder made of quite real granite.
We’re talking about Monumental Church, built to offer perpetual commemoration on the site of where on Dec. 26, 1811, more than 72 people — white, black, free and slave, wealthy and working class, and 54 of them women – died in the Richmond Theater Fire. Richmond, by 1811 the capital of Virginia for 31 years, counted a population of 9,735, which today would mean a capacity crowd at The Diamond. Thus, the fire’s immediate effects and the aftermath shook almost the entire citizenry. The event was discussed across the country.
Theater was banned in Richmond for eight years. Public performances were fined $6.66. As if using the Number of the Beast didn’t make the point that theatergoing was a bad practice, preachers used the event as a means to encourage parishioners toward being more mindful of how they spent their time. They often referred to Luke 13:1-5, wherein Jesus responds to questions about the lives taken by bloody Roman reprisals and the accidental collapse of a tower in Siloam that killed 18. Judgment may fall at any time, on the wicked and the righteous, thus it is best to make yourself right with God sooner rather than later.
A few of the more righteous inveighed against the evils of the playhouse and blamed the victims. Not preached against, however, was poor building construction, which at the theater included one main entrance/exit and doors that opened inward.
Meanwhile, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, a Richmond resident deeply involved with civic matters, set to work organizing a fundraising committee to establish a memorial to the victims — including those who days later died of their injuries — who were buried in a mass grave on the site. Monumental Episcopal Church opened for services 200 years ago in May 1814.
Satisfying the goal of building a church and monument on the site honoring those who died fell to South Carolinian Robert Mills, Thomas Jefferson’s only architecture student, who designed the church and the nearby first city hall, both domed and columned neo-Classical structures. But Monumental remains, whereas administrative short-sightedness (and poor attempts at interior remodeling that caused cracks to form in the dome) led to Old Old City Hall's 1874 demolition. Mills went on to design the National Monument in Washington.
The vagaries of ownership and occupation of the church are now etched in stone. The Historic Richmond Foundation embraced Monumental in 1983. HRF rehabilitated the old — like the roof — and added some modern conveniences such as heating and air-conditioning and restrooms. The group moved to storage the damaged original marble funerary memorial urn, incised by names of the dead, and created an exact replica.
The latest improvement is the Dr. Waverly M. Cole and Dr. John R. Cook Memorial Terrace, completed last week. The men were life partners for a half-century. An epigram in the terrace sums up their meaning for each other and their philanthropies, “Together for 50 years, a lifetime of healing, teaching, loving and giving. ‘By working, we make a living; by giving we make a life.’ ”
Mary Jane Hogue, executive director of HRF, explains that Cole, an anesthesiologist at the Richmond Eye and Ear Hospital, and collector of Bohemian glass and Meissen porcelain, died in 2009 after a long bout with cancer.
Cook, a decorated World War II veteran who went ashore at Normandy on Omaha Beach, headed the guidance and counseling services in the Virginia Department of Education. Cook survived Cole until this past Christmas.
“They were totally in love,” Hogue says. “ I could go on and on about these two gentlemen who loved each other and loved this city.” Being gay partners, they weren’t first accepted by their peers, but they gave millions of dollars to universities and charitable groups throughout Central Virginia. The Cook-Cole College of Arts and Sciences at Longwood University is named in their honor. Cole’s 500-piece collection of glass and ceramics is in the Cole Gallery there.
Hogue and Cook engaged in long conversations about a dual commiseration of the Cole-Cook relationship and Monumental’s story. HRF preservation paralegal Joanne McDonald suggested a timeline for visitors to use when approaching the site. She saw the project through and retired the day of its completion.
Jeff Daly, head of sales for the Oilville-based WestView Companies, hadn’t ever really visited Monumental. “I was one of those people who’d gone by and looked at it, but that was about all.” WestView did a project last summer at the St. Philip Hospital gateway of the Virginia Commonwealth University Health System. When Daly got close then, for the first time he went to the portico and read about the fire and the entombment of people who’d perished there.
A year ago, HRF board member Bob Mills of Commonwealth Architects initiated a partnership with WestView to begin a process of creating an in-ground timeline. Daly says, “The design of the timeline presents itself as a ladder or staircase into the property and pulls you in rather than gazing from the sidewalk.” He’s seen it work. While the granite pieces of the timeline were getting installed, passersby stopped and read. “Before, they might’ve said, ‘Oh, that’s an interesting building,’ and kept going,” Daly says. The timeline is made of gray granite quarried form Elberton, Georgia.
Besides the contributions of Cole and Cook, the terrace received additional funding form the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation, Garland and Agnes Gray Foundation, Windsor Foundation, Robins Foundation, Peachtree Foundation and the Council of Historic Richmond.
Some blank granite will allow others to add memoriam and honors.
“We’re hoping this terrace will create more opportunities for gatherings,” Hogue says. “[Monumental's] right on the VCU campus, they can utilize it, and we can see senior baccalaureates, classroom speeches, an auditorium.” Monumental is busy these days hosting weddings, a few funerals and special events.
Hogue is already planning for an Oct. 2 event with Altria as lead sponsor of 17 corporate contributors. John Marshall and Robert Mills will greet visitors and interpret their roles in the history of Monumental, Mattias Hägglund of Heritage restaurant is creating a Monumental cocktail, and nearby Hardywood Park Craft Brewery will provide libations in concert with Barboursville Vineyards. Former political opponent James Barbour succeeded Gov. William Smith, who died in the fire. “Barbour then became the first governor to reside in the Virginia Executive Mansion,” Hogue says. Barbour’s Orange County estate was one of three designed by Thomas Jefferson, though an 1884 fire destroyed it. The vineyards were established on the location in the national bicentennial year of 1976.
A chapter in the formative history of the country occurred approximately on this site; the deliberations of Virginia delegates who ultimately ratified the U.S. Constitution took place in the summer of 1788.
HRF’s work on Monumental isn’t done, though. The church needs an exterior cleaning, “We’ll be using a product called Kiln that’s a sealant and has a base color that matches what’s there.” The material isn’t the greatest expense — scaffolding for the installation costs around $200,000. Restoring the wrought iron fencing is next. “We have a long punch list for maintaining a 200-year-old building,” she says.
Meredith Henne Baker in 2012 published the long-needed The Richmond Theater Fire: Early America's First Great Disaster. I recommend the book and a stroll along the timeline.