With 36 pearl-white spires piercing the azure heavens, Waddell Memorial Presbyterian Church is a stunning structure, situated on bluffs overlooking the Rapidan River and the surrounding countryside.
The circa-1874 house of worship isthe finest specimen of Carpenter’s Gothic —or Rural Gothic—architecture in Virginia, according to Calder Loth, dean of the commonwealth’s architectural historians.
Designed by J.B. Danforth, a faculty member of the Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, the board-and-batten structure is garnished with milled wood, sawn to the desired shapes and nailed together.
Danforth, an amateur architect, also was chief clerk of the Richmond Mutual Assurance Society. His design called for a steeple, but that was deleted from the finished structure, according to the church’s entry in the 1999 book “The Virginia Landmarks Registry,” edited by Loth and published by the University of Virginia Press.
The church owns a tracing of Danforth’s drawings by the Richmond carpenter-architect John Gibson, who presumably worked on the building, Loth wrote.
“There’s a lot of history here, especially in our cemetery,” said Alan Kneustep, Waddell’s treasurer and an elder, standing in the church’s entryway and filling in as deacon on a recent Sunday. “It goes back to Colonial times.”
The church’s namesake is James Waddel, a blind Presbyterian preacher, born in Ireland in 1739, and a key player in the battle for religious tolerance in his day. William Wirt’s “The Letters of the British Spy,” published in 1803, describes Waddel as a “forceful, moving orator, capable of creating in his listeners a vivid sense of the reality of his subject.”
“It was a time of enlightenment,” Kneustep said. “After settling in the Gordonsville area, Waddel traveled extensively, and was well acquainted with many of the founding fathers, including Madison and Washington.”
Waddel also conducted a school at his house in Gordonsville. Among his pupils were the explorer Meriwether Lewis and James Barbour, who later became governor of Virginia.
Presbyterians in Rapidan named their house of worship after this charismatic preacher when they built a new church in 1874. Waddel’s remains were moved from where he had been buried in Gordonsville to a new grave in Waddell’s churchyard.
Kneustep lives less than a half-mile from the Orange County church. An employee in world development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Kneustep is also a longtime volunteer firefighter with the Rapidan Volunteer Fire Department.
“I’ve lived here 40 years, but they still consider me a newcomer,” he said, smiling. “But I married a local girl, so that helps.”
Restoration of Waddell Memorial is ongoing, with foundation and structural underpinning repair work recently completed, as well as restoration of the 36 spires and roofing trim. Contributions are welcome for continuing work on plaster and floor repair, pew refinishing, painting and other needed tasks.
The front latch and door hinges to match the original 1874 building were handcrafted in 2009 by the current pastor, Mac McRaven, who is also a blacksmith.
The building is included on both the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places. It is sited in the village’s Rapidan Historic District.
Waddell Memorial Presbyterian Church is southeast of Rapidan on State Route 615. The sanctuary is open to the public during daylight hours. Call 540/672-0672 for more information.