As the sun rises over the steeple of St. John’s Episcopal Church, it illuminates a neighborhood just about any Richmonder can identify. With its long-standing association to St. John’s, Church Hill has earned the title of city’s earliest neighborhood (it is more than 250 years old!), boasting pre-Civil War Greek Revival houses right alongside up-and-coming eateries and family-friendly parks. The name of the neighborhood itself is a tribute to the enduring legacy of St. John’s Church, which continues to perch on its hilltop, looking out over the neighborhood below it. From its raised position above the city, Church Hill has withstood the test of time and witnessed some of the most important historical moments in American history.
A DEEPLY ROOTED PAST
Part of the magic of Church Hill lies in its deeply-rooted past. The neighborhood’s fame began in the early days of the American Revolution. In 1775, due to its size and vantage point, St. John’s Church was chosen to host the Second Virginia Convention, where some of the most influential American figures of the age, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, gathered to deliberate the sensitive situation with Great Britain. It was here that Patrick Henry delivered the notorious words “Give me liberty or give me death!,” thus igniting the revolutionary spirit to secede from Great Britain. St. John’s Church was the perfect location for such a revolutionary and sensitive meeting.
In those early colonial days, there were only about a few hundred people living in the area, but that was soon to change. The lure of jobs in local tobacco companies brought hordes of eager new residents, a trend that continued into the years of the Civil War in the 1860s. Richmond is known as the Confederacy’s capital, of course; yet, it is lesser-known as a place where medical operations took place that saved thousands of wounded soldiers. Those operations took place in Church Hill hospitals; in fact, the renovated apartments in the former Pohlig Box Factory and the lush green lawns of Chimborazo Park were once the site of busy Civil War hospitals. Chimborazo, a hospital open only during the Civil War, was one of most advanced hospitals in the entirety of the South during that time.
TRAGIC TUNNEL COLLAPSE
Miraculously, Church Hill managed to escape much of the war’s widespread destruction, and the area kept on growing in the following years. It witnessed the establishment of Richmond’s (and the nation’s) first electric trolley system, railroad expansion, as well as the infamous 1925 Church Hill Tunnel collapse, which tragically sealed several workers and a train car inside (if you into supernatural scares, you should know some local urban legends tell of the ghosts of that tunnel).
Lucky for us, the histories of significant places like Church Hill are still accessible for Richmonders today. Additionally, while the Historic Richmond Foundation may be a pretty familiar name for its preservation efforts all around the city, it actually all started in 1950s Church Hill. The organization originally started out with the goal of safeguarding St. John’s Church and the area around it, before expanding to other historic sites in the following decades. Thanks to work likes theirs, Church Hill can stay grounded in its past.
...AND MODERN APPEAL
The other part of Church Hill’s distinctive magnetism comes from its ability to still branch out to new, diverse horizons. Amazingly, visitors can stand on the ground where Patrick Henry once stood, before walking just down the street to enjoy some of the area’s newly-flourishing restaurant scene with Proper Pie’s New Zealand-style pies. Interested learners can get info about the neighborhood on online community sites Church Hill People’s News or go to the longstanding East End Branch Library. There are modern community centers, studios, and businesses only blocks from classically built homes. These combining factors of old and new build a fascinating community narrative of Richmond’s past and present.