Washington’s Bells: Christ Church, Washington Parish

Long after U.S. Presidents Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe found solace in its Sunday services, Christ Church, Washington Parish stands on a little knoll as the descendant of the earliest structure in D.C. built to serve an ecclesiastical purpose. Straddled between Capitol Hill and Navy Yard, the Gothic Revival structure rises above the shade-dappled Federal and Victorian row houses of G Street Southeast. 

The founding of the Episcopal church dates to 1794, when an act of the Maryland General Assembly created two churches of Washington Parish – establishing the congregation only four years after the city of Washington itself. John Quincy Adams, writing in his diary in 1819, declared that Andrew McCormick, then-rector of Christ Church, was the only preacher in town worth hearing. Later remodeled in the style of an English country minster, the aspect of the church is dominated by an imposing stone tower that soars skyward over the neighborhood. 
 

A most stately bell tower

A four-story bell tower was built in 1848-49 as a new addition to the church and crowned with fleurs-de-lis. Appreciating its towering vantage point, Union soldiers commandeered the bell tower during the Civil War to serve as an observation post, from which they could survey the maneuvering of Confederate armies across the Potomac River. In 1891, a projecting front vestibule was built and the bell tower was further expanded with the addition of a fifth and last story, bringing the total height to its current 57 feet.

The Evening Star described the renovations in the October 3, 1891, edition:

[The Church] has been almost entirely renewed, and although the congregation is the oldest in the city their church is not only a new one in appearance, but one of the handsomest to be found in this section. The front is in imitation of stone and the toper has been raised some sixteen feet, relieving the front of its former squatty appearance. 

The present façade now appears exactly as it did a century ago. For historical context, in that same year of 1891, Queen Liliuokalani had just been crowned sovereign and queen regnant of the Kingdom of Hawaii. 

Bell Tower Workmen in 1891 at Christ Church Washington Parish

Image: Workmen in 1891 erect the fifth and final story of the bell tower and entrance vestibule of Christ Church. Courtesy: Christ Church, Washington Parish.

By 1969, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The nomination form to the Interior Department describes the bell tower’s rustic Gothic styling:

The bell tower behind the porch is framed by slender, double, two-stage buttresses with gabled caps. On the second story level above the porch is a three-pointed stained glass window set within a pointed arch. Above this window three pointed-arch niches with common mullions and sills are topped with tiny trefoil windows. Over these niches two stained-glass lancet window with a small pointed-arch niche between share a common sill moulding. On each side of the fifth level of the tower there is a circular stained-glass window composed of six circles surrounding a central one. The top of the tower has a dogtooth cornice and a crenellated parapet, with galvanized iron pinnacles on square piers at each of the four corners.

Within such a tower, surely a dignified bell must go. In 1848, Rector William Hodges had suggested "the expediency of having a bell to assemble the congregation." In April 1850, he commissioned Mr. Andrew Meneely of New York to cast a bell for the parish at a cost of $456.84. That original bell still hangs within the bell tower today.

Bell at Christ Church Washington Parish

Image: Original bell believed to have hung in the Christ Church belfry since 1850. Courtesy: Christ Church, Washington Parish.