Ravaged by fire, fate of seminarys historic chapel held by city preservationists

Ravaged by fire, fate of seminarys historic chapel held by city preservationists

When a riotous fire incinerates the roof of a 129-year-old chapel in a 261-year-old city, its bound to raise eyebrows, especially in Alexandria, where historic preservation is the rule, not the exception.

The Virginia Theological Seminary and preservationists at City Hall are working out just what to do with the iconic Immanuel Chapel engulfed by flames during an afternoon blaze in October. Should it be restored and rebuilt? Demolished and memorialized? It depends.

The Board of Architectural Review has one mission: safeguard the citys architectural heritage from the elements of time. Ideally, its members would have the storied church its walls hold memorials honoring leading figures like Francis Scott Key rebuilt brick for brick.

Its one of the greatest examples of gothic revival [architecture] that took place in the country, that little chapel, said BAR member Peter Smeallie, who was married there. Its apparent that this church meant a lot and thats what we do preserve history.

The BAR cant make the seminary restore its chapel, but it could prohibit the religious institution from demolishing the remains. The result would be a useless relic of four walls and no roof an expensive concept that counters the seminarys mission, said Rev. Ian Markham, the schools dean.

You would end up with a huge, massive, monument to a tragedy, said Markham. So what were trying to do is honor preservation and at the same time honor our mission. And in the end, our primary purpose here is to train seminarians for the future. Not to keep old buildings up forever.

It would cost about $856,000 just to stabilize the remnants and create a safe standing ruin, according to structural estimates contracted by Markham.

Some members believe the walls could support a new roof and a total rebuild. The BAR bases decisions on historic significance alone, not finances, so the seminarys cash flow could have no bearing on the committees final decision. 

The religious school is also much larger than it was two centuries ago. About 300 students and 60 staff members require a larger chapel, an idea the seminary has coveted and raised significant money for over the last several years.

We dont have unlimited resources here. Weve got to be stewards of the money we collect, Markham said.

Plus, he said, it would be impossible to recreate the chapel brick for brick.

But Al Cox, historic preservation manager with the city, disagrees.

Frankly we have the technology to restore or replace anything, said Cox. But this all costs money. It really comes down to the seminary and this is not a condemnation, because I understand why theyre doing this. The seminary wants to spend the money on what theyve been fundraising for for 30 years, not on what in their mind was beautiful, held a lot of memories, but burned.

The compromise looks to be the construction of a new chapel and an open-air prayer garden, accented by two of the historically conspicuous walls, not unlike medieval ruins found in Europe. In the meantime, all four walls will be braced while the seminarys architects design the garden and new chapel.

The board will view the plans and could still deny any further demolition of the structure, but after visiting the site, Smeallie believes the prayer garden and new chapel site could work. Thats a recommendation, not a decision, he said. 

I was very pleased with the degree of cooperation we were all working toward the same thing, Smeallie said.

We came away with surprising and good unanimity on what was important and what wasnt important, said Cox, who also examined the ruins. 

While some board members may vote against the project on principal, he doesnt see any major setbacks with it.  

Honestly, no, I dont see any problems, Cox said. I think we all wish they would restore it and could restore it but as a compromise I think this could be a really beautiful prayer garden that can compliment a new chapel.