Photo of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church From 1899 Shows Church Before Fire

St. Paul's Episcopal Church ca. 1899I doubt many visitors to St. Pauls’ church in the Rock Creek Cemetery give much thought to its architecture or ponder upon its history beyond it being an attractive colonial style building. While its well known that the church dates to the 18th century and is the oldest church in the District of Columbia (the church’s Web site includes a good history that you can read here), its appearance today is noticeably different than that which visitors encountered a century ago. This change in appearance is the result of a devastating fire that all but destroyed the church on the morning of April 6, 1921.

According to the church’s Web site, a church has been on its present site since 1719, when a wooden church building was first begun. This was followed by a new brick church building begun in 1721 and completed in 1775.  The building was again largely rebuilt in 1810 and it is this building that can be viewed in the image above which dates to around 1899.

???????????????????????????????The original building was about forty by sixty feet, and was originally arranged with the chancel cut off by a rail at the east end. Three windows faced the east and at the far end two entrance doors were located to the west. On each long side, north and south, were five windows, and above these a second tier, as if a gallery were contemplated for growth.

In 1868 the vestry built at the center of the north wall a wide apsidal chancel, with three windows. Around this time all the two-storied windows of the old church were run together into high, round-arched windows and the west doors were abandoned in favor of an entrance at the center of the south side. Finally, in 1909, a memorial bell-tower was constructed on the south side.

A little after 3 a.m. on the morning of April 6, 1921,  a fire was discovered in the church and the alarm called in. Engine companies 24, 11, and 22 and truck company 6 responded, but upon their arrival the flames were so advanced that efforts to save the property were all but useless. Furthermore, the firemen’s ability to douse the fire was hampered by the fact that there was no fire plug in the immediate vicinity of the church. By the time a nearby plug had been located some distance away and water brought to fight the fire, the building had been aflame for a full hour.

Depending upon contemporary reports, the damage was estimated at between $75,000 and more than $100,000, although the loss in many ways could not be calculated. The fire had reduced the building to its four outer walls. Not only was the building severely damaged, but the interior was a complete loss — not to mention the loss of the valuable memorial windows, irreplaceable relics, and paintings.

The congregation immediately set to rebuilding the church. In rebuilding, most of the brickwork was found substantial enough, but the north wall had buckled decidedly in the center and was taken down. The architect in charge of the rebuilding was Delos H. Smith, with the result being the church building we know today.

IMG_7277(St. Paul’s today)

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One Comment on “Photo of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church From 1899 Shows Church Before Fire”


  1. […] Church (aka the Rock Creek Church). This photo likely dates to the 1870s or 1880s and is a good companion to the snapshot I posted on September 4, 2014, which dates to around 1899. But whereas that photo shows the church’s south elevation, this […]


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