It has been said that it would take a Milton or a Shakespeare to portray the beauty and dignity of Christ Church in Alexandria, the church in which Washington was a vestryman, and where worshipped the aristocrats of Northern Virginia.
Like many of the colonial churches in Virginia, Christ Church was built upon the site of a smaller building which outgrew its usefulness as the settlers grew in numbers. The Chapel of Ease was the name of the small edifice which was replaced by Christ Church, whose history dates from 1765 when the vestry of the pioneer chapel met to consider the question of a new and larger house of worship.
Among those who conferred at this meeting were members of the West, Sanford, Washington, Broadwater, Muir, Fleming and Payne families, who joined the minister, Reverend Townsend Dade, in seeking Divine help in the new undertaking. Such was the inception of this historic structure.
Meanwhile, on March 28, 1765, vestrymen were elected, among whom was George Washington. In 1767, after much thought and many plans, the contract for the church was awarded to James Parson. The site, a wooded tract at the head of Cameron Street, had been donated by John Alexander of Stafford County, which relieved the congregation of a part of the expense. In the meantime money for the erection had been raised by taxing each family of the parish a certain number of pounds of tobacco. James Wren, a reputed descendant of Sir Christopher, was responsible for the exquisite design of the church, work on which ceased for a time just prior to completion. Colonel John Carlyle finally agreed to finish construction for the sum of £220, and on February 27, 1773, the structure was accepted by the vestry.
The church is noted for its exquisite interior, where dignity is the keynote. The arches and pediments are of the Tuscan order of architecture, while the altar piece, pulpit and canopy are of the Ionic order. The tablets on either side of the three windows in the chancel were lettered by James Wren in 1773 for the sum of £8. The quaint lettering lends a distinct charm to these copies of the Lord’s Prayer, Apostles’ Creed, and Golden Rule.
One of the original box-shaped pews is still to be seen, that of General George Washington in which, tradition has it, he sat in such a manner that he could face both minister and congregation. On the east wall are two memorial tablets, one to Washington, and the other to the Christian soldier, Robert E. Lee who, during his boyhood worshipped in the church and was confirmed here, and who assisted many times in decorating the edifice for the Christmas festivals.
One of the treasures of the old church is its cut-glass chandelier, purchased in England in 1817 by order of the vestry. It was secured for the trifling sum of $140, and originally hung in the center of the ceiling and was lit with tallow candles. It now hangs under the rear gallery. The galleries, incidentally, were added in 1786, and are of Doric architecture, harmonizing perfectly with the original design of the interior.
The exterior of Christ Church is charming, with its ivy-covered walls, weather-beaten brick set off by noble trees and ancient tombstones. During the War Between the States the structure was used to hold services for the Federal troops, all other churches in Alexandria having been utilized for hospitals.