Five Christian churches and two Jewish cemeteries are within four hundred yards of my childhood home. This did not destine me to become a historian of American religious places. But it probably helped.
An Early and Mid-Century Suburb
I grew up in Wythe, a residential neighborhood in Hampton, Virginia. The clustering of churches is a common phenomenon in cities and some older suburbs (Shaw 1995). Wythe was the later. My immediate neighborhood transformed from farmland to suburb in the late 1930s, the areas on either side did so a bit earlier. Four church buildings opened in the 1940s near the region’s first suburban shopping center, a place built for the automobile. Yet they were also adjacent to a large apartment complex and bus and streetcar lines that led to the city, features of a pedestrian landscape. Early Wythe straddled the streetcar and automobile eras.
On both streetcar and bus, riders paid one fare to ride to downtown Newport News, an industrial and commercial center dating from the 1880s. Yet they paid twice as much to travel the same distance to downtown Hampton, also known as “Crabtown,” the oldest continuous English-speaking settlement in the New World (established 1610). The fare differential belied the fact that the neighborhood was three miles from both cities. But it cemented the fact the despite the fact that Wythe was in Elizabeth City County (whose seat was Hampton), it was primarily a suburb of Newport News with its coal terminal and massive shipyard.
In the 1940s, many Wythe residents drove or road the bus to Newport News to worship. They included my father’s family who attended St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. They moved from Newport News into a then-new house in 1938. After my grandparents died, my parents and I moved into the same house at the end of 1971. We also went to church in Newport News. But many neighbors attended the four Wythe congregations whose churches defined my childhood landscape: Wythe Presbyterian, Aldersgate Methodist, Wythe Parkway Baptist, and St. Rose Catholic. Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Temple joined them after I was born.
Before the churches came a cemetery. The Hebrew Cemetery opened near the end of the nineteenth century. At that time it was amid farmland, away form major roads. Soon, however, U.S. Route 60 ran by its gate. The federal highway linked Williamsburg, Denbigh, Newport News, and Hampton, and connected them by ferry with Virginia Beach and Norfolk.
Orthodox Jews from Newport News established the Hebrew Cemetery in 1895. This was just one year after their congregation, Adath Jeshurun, built is first synagogue.
Newport News sprang to life as an industrial center after the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway reached the mouth of the James River in 1881. The city expanded toward the east. Railway, streetcar lines, and a road paved with oyster shells (called Shell Road) ran through the Newport News’s East End and beyond, connecting the city with Hampton, Ft. Monroe, and bayside leisure centers. These were segregated as was the rest of Virginia society: Buckroe Beach and Old Point Comfort were for whites Bay Shore Beach for blacks.
Newport News residents located their main cemetery, Greenlawn, along these connections, two miles from the city center, in 1888. The city’s Jews chose a more remote location a mile further toward Hampton and further from the rail lines. It was just beyond the land that that Newport News developers had acquired for development.
In 1910, Kecoughtan Road, the first paved roadway connecting Hampton to Newport News, opened on the south side of the cemetery and sped the development of central Wythe.
Each day that I walked along Kecoughtan Road to elementary school, I saw the gate to the Hebrew Cemetery from the other side of the road. The main thing I noticed about it was that the “C” in “cemetery” had an unusually high bottom. The word on the archway looked more like “Gemetery” than “Cemetery.”
The carved tablets on the inside of the gate are dated to the first day of the month of Elul, A..M. 5671 (August 25, 1911). They list the officers of the synagogue and of the cemetery.
During my walks to school in the early 1980s, I also noticed that there was a second gate to the left of the first one. Only in researching this post did I learn that this was for Rosenbaum Memorial Park. It was established to serve Conservative Jews in 1948. The two cemeteries that I had long assumed to be one official merged in 2002 to become the Jewish Cemetery of the Virginia Peninsula. It still maintains separate sections for Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews.
When the Hebrew Cemetery opened, the entire eastern half of Elizabeth City County was known as Wythe District, named for George Wythe, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, teacher of Thomas Jefferson, and the first law professor in the U.S. He was born at Chesterville, a plantation on the northern border of the county, in 1726. Over time “Wythe” came to refer primarily to a smaller area between Newport News and Church Creek along the street car lines that ran on the Boulevard (now Chesapeake Avenue) and Electric Avenue (now Victoria Boulevard). The motorway, Kecoughtan Road (US 60), ran between these two parallel tracts. As the maps above suggest, residential development along the harbor began in the western section nearest Newport News. Developers subdivided this land before 1900. Part of this neighborhood incorporated as the town of Kecoughtan in 1916 and then left Elizabeth City County upon the town’s annexation by Newport News in 1926. Like the resorts, the neighborhoods were segregated. The harborside neighborhoods were primarily white. African American communities such as Garden City and Dunbar Gardens emerged further inland along Shell Road.
In 1909, a third of a mile west of the cemetery, the county opened George Wythe Elementary School. It was joined by George Wythe Junior High in 1937. When a new George Wythe Junior High opened three blocks away in 1950, the elementary school moved into the 1937 Art Deco building with its iconic owls and motto over the main doors. Until desegregation in the 1960s, all these schools were for white students only. The 1937 building continued to serve as an elementary school until 2010 and in 2019, it was redeveloped into apartments. A photo of the owl is one of the first things I see every morning in my breakfast nook. And a photo of the motto over its doors, “Enter to Learn, Leave to Serve,” is what I see every time I leave the office to teach.
Maps from the mid-century show two churches near the schools. The western one was the Presbyterian church. I believe the other one was the Baptist church.
The first subdivisions that explicitly used the name “Wythe” were developed just east of the Hebrew Cemetery in the 1930s. The names of the streets of Wythe Place and Wythe Terrace paid tribute to the founding father in their names: Wythe Parkway, Chancellor (the state office he held), and Chesterfield (an echo of his plantation, Chesterville). Here the Wythe Shopping Center opened in October 1939, complete with a grocery, a drugstore, and a cinema named for the signer. A large apartment court, a bank, a bowling alley, and additional shops soon followed.
Churches Opened in the 1940s
In its first decade, four denominations secured land in central Wythe. Baptists and Catholics owned land along Bay Avenue in Wythe Terrace, Methodists and Presbyterians were one block away along Kecoughtan Road in Wythe Place. Bay Avenue was one short block off the streetcar line, but it was hidden from Kecoughtan Road which became the well-traveled commercial strip.
Wythe Parkway Baptist
Wythe Parkway Baptist Church was oldest of these congregations and the first congregation to complete its building project. Planted by Hampton Baptist Church, this congregation had been founded in a different name and location in 1902. I believe it may have met in a building on the east side of Catalpa Avenue, near Wythe School. In 1941 in the new center of Wythe it raised an impressive church in early twentieth-century Southern Baptists’ most popular form: the Greek Revival temple.
Wythe Parkway Baptist employed a compact urban plan, where the main auditorium was raised above the Sunday school in order to utilize less land. Its four-column portico was more modest than its many hexastyle predecessors, such as Southside Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Fifth Avenue Baptist in Huntington, West Virginia, University Baptist in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the American ur-type, Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia State Capitol. It was still an impressive building for suburban Wythe.
Wythe Presbyterian Church began as a satellite Sunday school of First Presbyterian Church of Newport News in 1921 in a small chapel on Cottonwood Avenue near Wythe School, one block west from the probable Baptist church on Catalpa. It was received into the Norfolk Presbytery as a church with forty members in 1940 and moved to its current site at Robinson and Kecoughtan roads in 1949. Its Gothic-Revival sanctuary was part of a typical suburban complex. The Sunday school was in a building next to and behind the sanctuary. By the 1970s, after a south wing had been added, its stone facade had been white-washed, uniting a later addition to the south. Its colonial cupola was also replaced with a striking modern spire. Largely because of the spire, the building is described as “Moderne” in Old Wythe’s listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
Methodists organized in Wythe Presbyterian’s Cottonwood Avenue chapel in 1937. Initially they chose the name Saint John’s. Perhaps this was at the suggestion of Freemasons in the congregation. It invited confusion, however, with Hampton’s three-hundred-plus-year-old Episcopal parish. Therefore, when in 1938, Methodists observed the bicentennial of their founder John Wesley’s experience of finding his heart “strangely warmed” while at a prayer meeting on London’s Aldersgate Street, Wythe Methodists renamed their church “Aldersgate” to honor Wesley and the bicentennial.
In 1940 they moved into the first unit of what would become a three-building complex at the corner of Wythe Parkway and Kecoughtan Road. All parts of the complex were clad in the red brick that was so popular in Virginia’s colonial revival. With its circletop windows, white pews, and split gable altarpiece, its large sanctuary enthusiastically expressed the colonial revival aesthetic and became an iconic presence in Wythe’s commercial center.
St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic
Prior to World War II, Roman Catholics bought a track of land next to the Baptist church on Bay Avenue. In 1943 on this land the federal government built a three-hundred-plus bed dormitory for female defense workers. In keeping with the neighborhood theme, it was named for George Wythe’s wife, Anne. These defense workers included women who worked for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics as “computers” at Langley. Anne Wythe Hall was in an attractive location, just two blocks from the shopping center with its cinema and one short block from the streetcar line. It was safely suburban, but near a grocery store and public transportation to the city and other industrial and defense centers.
After the war, the government transferred the building to the Diocee of Richmond. Saint Rose of Lima Parish was organized in 1948 and the following year a school opened in the former dormitory. The name Saint Rose continued the neighborhood’s colonial theme since Rose (d. 1617), although from Lima, Peru, was the first person born in the Western Hemisphere to be canonized. St. Rose was also a member of the same religious tradition as the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia that staffed the county’s older Catholic elementary school in Phoebus. Ground was broken for a brick church in 1952.
The building could be called Gothic Revival due to its nod toward pointed arches and buttresses, but with its rectangular windows and general simplicity, it a good example of what Jay Price has termed “mid-century traditional” (Price 2013). While it is fairly simple structure, its stained-glass windows make it the most decorated interior of any Wythe church.
Baptist Churches Move in the 1970s
In 1952 when the Catholics began their building, Elizabeth City County merged with the City of Hampton. In Virginia, independent cities are not part of any county and so, after over three hundred years of existence, Elizabeth City County became extinct. Many new suburban neighborhoods developed in the enlarged city and by the 1970s Wythe was seen by many as in decline. Its population was aging. Some areas that were initially populated by whites were now transitioning to be predominately African American. Wythe Parkway Baptist moved to a new location and took a new name. Two African American Baptist congregations moved in to the neighborhood.
Wythe Parkway Baptist’s Building Becomes Fountain Baptist
In 1970 when Wythe Parkway Baptist Church’s building suffered a fire the congregation decided to move. It built a smaller, more modern church off six miles away off Big Bethel Road near Hampton’s northern border. In its new location, it took a new name: Big Bethel Baptist Church. It later changed this to Faith Baptist Church.
Fountain Baptist Church, founded by African Americans in 1908, moved into the former Wythe Parkway building. The departing congregation took their cornerstone with them and Fountain Baptist replaced it with their own.
Sixth Mount Zion Baptist
Another African American church, Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church opened a new building across from Wythe Presbyterian Church in 1978. Founded in 1900, Sixth Mount Zion employed modern lines in its new building, but its red bricks united it to the gate of the neighboring Hebrew Cemetery, three of the churches, and many other nearby buildings.
Twenty-first Century Changes
Wythe has seen many transitions since the 1990s. The part of the neighborhood between Kecoughtan Road and the harbor was rebranded as “Olde Wythe.” In 2012 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, with Wythe Presbyterian and Aldersgate Methodist as contributing properties. Along Kecoughtan Road many commercial buildings were vacated and torn down. Kecoughtan’s western end was reduced from four lanes to two, beginning its transition from a busy federal highway to a residential street. Three of the five church buildings also saw changes. Some were due to growth in membership, others decline. The city’s growing ethnic diversity also shaped the story.
In 2002, Sixth Mount Zion Baptist had outgrown its building and moved into the much larger former Central Baptist building off West Mercury Boulevard. It opened a community outreach ministry called “Six House” in its Wythe building. Six House continued to host weekly worship services early on Sunday mornings. It also offered job skills training to those in need. For a time it also hosted a Spanish-language congregation of the Church of God.
St. Rose of Lima and the Korean Martyrs
Around the time that Wythe Parkway Baptist moved, the opening of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in the Collesium Central area reassigned many Catholics away from St. Rose. In the twenty-first century, the Catholic Community of the Korean Martyrs, began celeberating their Korean-language services at St. Rose. After worshipping at St. Rose for a number of years the Korean Martyrs community was officially merged with St. Rose Parish in 2012. The renovated and redecorated building was rededicated in 2013 as St. Rose and the Korean Martyrs Catholic Church.
Over time Aldersgate United Methodist’s membership aged and declined. For several years it was paired in a two-point charge with Central Methodist. In December 2018, the congregation was disbanded and the building put up for sale. While other churches and a synagogue further east on Kecoughtan Road have found new congregations to worship in them, Aldersgate’s much larger building is still available. One drawback is that, having been planned at a time when blue laws closed most businesses in the adjoining shopping center on Sunday, it has no off street parking of its own.
At present, the other major monuments of the shopping district, the grocery store and art deco bank are also empty. While Wythe’s proximity to the harbor and easy connection to Interstate 664 ensure that it continues to attract new residents, its commercial center and churches face challenges. Built for the era of buses and streetcars, the churches and storefronts face considerable competition in the era of highways and wireless internet. But with their Gothic, Georgian Colonial, and modern features, they continue to claim space for religion in this residental neighborhood.
Growing up in Wythe, awareness of different denominational identities was something I encountered everyday. In addition to these churches, Jewish, Episcopal, Seventh-Day Adventist, Christian Science, and Lutheran houses of worship were part of my daily landscape. Perhaps this is part of what lead me into religious history. I look forward to seeing how these and other congregations rebuild in a post-Covid era.
Buggeln, Gretchen Townsend. The Suburban Church: Modernism and Community in Postwar America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.
Olde Wythe Neighborhood Association. Hampton’s Olde Wythe: Jewel of the Virginia Tidewater. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2014.
Price, Jay M. Temples for a Modern God: Religious Architecture in Postwar America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Shaw, Diane. 1995. “Building an Urban Identity: The Clustered Spires of Frederick Maryland.” Perspectives on Vernacular Architecture 5: 55-69.
Stenvaag, James T. Hampton: From the Sea to the Stars, 1610-1985. Norfolk, VA: Donning, 1985.
Updated December 10, 2020.