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Church Full of Secrets, but Are They by Design?

January 12, 1991|JOY ASCHENBACH | NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

IRVINGTON, Va. — In lonely majesty near this Chesapeake Bay village, historic Christ Church has kept a secret for more than 250 years.

Is it more than a house of worship? Does it cast shadows that tell time and count the days from spring to fall? Does it capture sunbeams by design? Is it a clock, calendar and compass? Is its stark simplicity deceptive?

Indisputably, Christ Church is an architectural gem--the best-preserved Colonial church in Virginia. A registered national historic landmark, it is an imposing, mausoleum-like brick structure built in the form of the Greek cross about 1732.

Unquestionably, it was designed by an architect of sophistication, but his name and the building's plans have never been found. Some scholars believe it could be a design of the great English architect Sir Christopher Wren. Christ Church resembles Farley Church, a late-17th-Century country church in Wiltshire, which some authorities have attributed to Wren.

Christ Church was privately built by one of Colonial Virginia's wealthiest planters, Robert (King) Carter, whose holdings covered some 300,000 acres and whose prominent descendants include Virginia governors, signers of the Declaration of Independence and U.S. presidents.

The church's location, wrote an early descendant, was a "rather lonely one, with woods all around, few or no houses near and no good roads."

Was it precisely aligned on this site to tell time? Were its dimensions specifically calculated to tell time?

"It's a time machine, no question about it," says H. Stephen Stewart, a longtime student of horology, the science of time measurement, who has observed the church nearly every day since last March 30.

"The whole building is a building of numbers. It's inundated with calendric, solar and lunar numbers," he said. There are, for example, 188 brick dentils over the church's main door, and 188 days from the first day of spring to the first of fall.

Stewart says he has uncovered numerous clues to Christ Church's secrets. An oval sunbeam shines on the altar on the mean date for Easter--14 days after the vernal equinox--and again 14 days before the autumnal equinox. The beam is captured through an oval window above the main entrance, which faces almost due west.

A similar splash of light falls on a tomb in the exact center of the church on the day halfway between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice.

A shadow cast from a cornice, Stewart says, counts the days from spring to fall as it moves up or down the outside west wall--one row of bricks a day. There are 94 days between spring and summer, 94 between summer and fall and 94 rows of bricks between the building's water table and cornice.

"I was counting the courses of brick. When I reached 83, tears came to my eyes; I had to stop," he says. "I thought, my God, it's a calendar!"

For eight hours each day, Stewart says, the church also is a sundial, casting a shadow on the north lawn.

"No way on earth can all this be happenstance," he said. Although there's no proof, he is convinced the church was designed by Wren, who also was an astronomer, mathematician and surveyor.

"Wren did this with a twinkle in his eye," Stewart said. "He's not revealing his secrets. You've got to find the trick."

Can't this be by accident?

"How could that many things happen in one building and be chance?" said P.L. Anderson, a Danville, Va., builder of Colonial-style structures. "The strongest arguments are your eyes. The first time I saw the church I was struck by its extraordinary height. The architect had to have a great familiarity with astronomy and trigonometry to figure out these dimensions."

Planetarium specialist Henry H. Mitchell and astronomer Rickey Parker agree the design does not appear accidental. They are using computers to check the church's astronomical alignment.

"We are in a wait-and-see stance," said the Rev. Thom W. Blair Jr., rector of Grace Episcopal Church in nearby Kilmarnock, which has jurisdiction over Christ Church. "This is not anything anybody has thought about before. We need solid documentation."

"I'm very skeptical," said Kerry Downes of the University of Reading in England, who is a Wren scholar. He explains that no Wren structures in England are known to act as clocks or calendars.

"There's no evidence in any of Wren's surviving manuscripts that he was interested in calendric devices or such puzzles," said another Wren scholar, James A. Bennett, curator of the Whipple Museum of the History of Science in Cambridge, England.

There's also no evidence that any other American Colonial church or structure acts as a clock or calendar, said Dell Upton of the University of California, Berkeley, who is an authority on Colonial architecture. "What you have is a lot of would haves, could haves and might haves," he said.

Stewart, undeterred, is confident he can continue to discover mysteries in Christ Church. "I challenge anyone to come here and try to prove me wrong," he said.

But the skeptics, it seems, think the burden is on Stewart to prove his theories right.

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