Dubbed the "Church of the Presidents," St. John's Church is a historic Episcopalian chapel located across the street from the White House in Washington, DC. Every U.S. president since 1815 has attended occasional services here, including Barack Obama on the morning of Inauguration Day and on Easter Sunday 2009.
History of St. John's Church
St. John's Church was founded in 1815 to serve as a parish church for the growing neighborhoods in western Washington, DC. The building was designed in the Neoclassical style by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who did not accept a fee for his work.
Born in Great Britian, Latrobe emigrated to the United States in 1796. In 1803, he was appointed Surveyor of Public Buildings and Architect of the Capitol by President Thomas Jefferson, giving him the distinction of being the first professional architect in America. Before working on St. John's, Latrobe was responsible for rebuilding the White House and Capitol building after the War of 1812.
The first worship service was held at St. John's in October 1816, with the official consecration service taking place on December 27, 1816. A Renaissance man, Benjamin Latrobe composed the dedicatory hymn and played the organ at the service.
Significant changes were made to the church in the 19th and 20th centuries, including extension of the nave and construction of the portico in the 1820s, removal of the box pews in the 1840s to allow more seating, and a full renovation (including expansion of the chancel to the east) under architect James Renwick in the 1880s. The interior was redecorated again in 1919.
Since its foundation, every sitting President of the United States has attended at least one service at St. John's Church, including Barack Obama and his family on the morning of Inauguration Day and again on Easter Sunday 2009. It is has thus become known as the "Church of the Presidents." But it is also an active and welcoming parish church serving the local community. The congregation currently has about 1,000 members.
What to See at St. John's Church
St. John's Church is an attractive little church overlooking Lafayette Square from across H Street. It is Neoclassical in style, with a colonnaded portico and triangular pediment. The exterior walls are painted a pale yellow. Latrobe's original design was a simple Greek cross, but subsequent extensions to the west and east have altered the floor plan.
The interior decoration dates from the last major renovation in 1919, which enlarged the windows, added the marble in the chancel, and installed the first lighting system. Look for Pew 54 - it is the President's Pew, reserved for the chief executive's use when he or she is in attendance. The church's kneelers are embroidered with the names of past presidents.
The bell in St. John's belltower was cast by Joseph Revere (son of the famous Paul) in his Boston foundry in August 1822 and installed on November 30, 1822. The church bell was paid for by public funds and also served as an alarm bell for the neighborhood. Weighing nearly 1,000 pounds, the bell of St. John's has been in continuous service since its installation.
Quick Facts on St. John's Church
|Names:||St. John's Church|
|Categories:||National Historic Landmarks; National Register of Historic Places; religious buildings|
|Dedication:||St. John the Evangelist|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Address:||16th and H Sts., NW|
- St. John's History - official website of St. John's Church
- Matt Zapotosky and Hamil R. Harris, "For Easter, Obamas Pick A Safe Bet: First Family Chooses Historic St. John's for Service." Washington Post, April 13, 2009.
- Photos of St. John's Church - here on Sacred Destinations