Historic Sites and Buildings
This "Church of Presidents," across from Lafayette Square, is an excellent example of Federal-style architecture and was one of the first buildings after the White House built around the square. It is today one of several surviving Federal-period structures in the vicinity, which also include the White House, Decatur House, Dolley Madison House, and the Tayloe-Cameron House. The church is included in Lafayette Square Historic District, a National Historic Landmark described elsewhere in this volume.
The distinguished architect Benjamin H. Latrobe designed St. John's, constructed in 1815-16 in the form of a Greek cross. A lantern cupola sitting above a flat dome dominated the gabled roofline, which towered above the high sidewalls. At the intersections of the transepts were four massive pillars. Surrounding the interior was a graceful circular gallery, which had a railing and was supported by columns. The aisles were of brick and the pews high-backed. Within the chancel was a communion table, above which was a movable wine-glass pulpit, reached by a spiral staircase.
Four years after the completion of the church, workmen erected a major addition on the west side, fronted by a Doric-columned portico which became the new main entrance, and above which rose a high steeple. New flat-roofed vestibules, just behind and lower than the portico, created the form of a Latin instead of a Greek cross. In 1842 church officials replaced the old pews and subsequently made other minor modifications, but over the course of the years restored many original features.
At the time of the opening of the church, a pew was reserved for President Madison. He chose Number 28, later redesignated Number 54, and the next five PresidentsMonroe, John Quincy Adams, Jackson, Van Buren, and William Henry Harrisonoccupied the pew. Since then, by tradition, pew 54 has been set aside for the President. Funeral services for William Henry Harrison and Taylor were conducted at the church. Recent Presidents who have attended include Franklin D. Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Ford.
St. John's Church, in fine condition today, is still an active parish church. The basic structure, much the same as at the time of the original construction and subsequent major enlargement, is of brick and yellow stucco with white trim. Twenty-seven handsome memorial windows adorn the building. Many of the Presidents have autographed an 18th-century prayerbook, placed in the President's pew. A silver chalice donated by John Tayloe, builder of the Octagon House, and a solid gold communion chalice, encrusted with jewels, are among the many notable treasures of the church.
Last Updated: 22-Jan-2004