Monumental Church was built on the site of the Richmond Theatre, which was burned in 1811. In the old theatre leading actors of the day-including Elizabeth Arnold Poe, who died in Richmond while she was a star in the Placides stock company-entertained the town and its visitors until December 26, 1811. On that night the house, crowded with a holiday audience, took fire from a chandelier on the stage. Seventy-three persons, including Governor George William Smith, lost their lives, and many were seriously injured. Among those who distinguished themselves for heroic rescue work was Gilbert Hunt, a negro blacksmith of giant stature and strength. It was determined to build a monument to the memory of those who perished. Chief Justice Marshall was on the committee to collect funds. Later it was decided that the memorial should take the form of a church, for which the corner stone was laid in 1812 under the direction of Robert Mills, who designed the edifice. It was finished in 1814.
On the porch is a monument inscribed with the names of those who lost their lives on that memorable night, and their ashes lie underneath the brick floor. Chief Justice Marshall and John Allan, foster father of Edgar Allan Poe, were pew-holders. The late Mary Newton Stanard tells in a history of this church that Poe, when a small boy, was heard on one occasion during services in the church to spell out loud the words, “Give Ear, 0 Lord,” which is inscribed in gold letters over the chancel. Lafayette attended service here in 1824 when visiting Justice Marshall.
The Richmond Theatre was the second structure on the church site; the first building, also a theatre, was the scene of the Convention of 1788, when Virginia ratified the Constitution of the United States. The exterior of the building prepares one for the dignity and beauty of the interior with its octagonal form and exquisite frescoes.