Early History of St. John’s Episcopal Church McLean, Virginia

The history of McLean’s St. John’s Episcopal Church begins in 1866 with Sunday school classes being taught by Cordelia Slade in the log-cabin home of her father, William Slade, located on Georgetown Pike at the edge of the village of Langley. An Episcopalian congregation soon formed and members began worshiping in the nearby pre-Civil War Langley Methodist Church; some services were held in private homes. There were enough Episcopalians in the area that the congregation decided to build a church of their own. Land was obtained on Georgetown Pike to the east of Langley Fork from local resident Henry Taylor. A small clapboard box-like church building was consecrated on June 24, 1877. The surrounding roads were of poor quality and transportation was a continual problem for both the membership and pastors; often Sunday services were not held. The church had trouble maintaining a pastor, even a part-time one. The few families that continued to teach Sunday School prevented the building from falling into disrepair.

On July 4, 1906, the Great Falls & Old Dominion Railroad began operating. The14 mile trolley route connected Rosslyn with the Great Falls and its tracks crossed Chain Bridge Road where the stop was named Ingleside. The Ingleside stop was located about half way between the villages of Lewinsville and Langley and simply became known as McLean in 1910. At this time St. John’s was floundering. Regular services were at a bare minimum. The Langley area was very rural. Transportation continued to be a problem for the church. In order to survive, its members looked into relocating to a site near the Ingleside stop. A quarter of an acre of land was purchased from Matthew and Ella Laughlin near the Ingleside stop on the south side of Chain Bridge Road on August 12, 1908. Included in the purchase was a right-of-way easement granted by the Great Falls & Old Dominion Railroad for a sidewalk along Chain Bridge Road which gave access to the tracks. The original church building was then physically moved in August of 1909 from its Georgetown Pike location to the new location in Ingleside. The following is a description of the move of the church building as described by a six-year old Mervin Boston:

“they jacked up the church and put logs under the frame. Then they put timbers on the ground for the logs to roll on. A cable was attached to the building and run to a winch just like the ones they used to pull up stumps with. They used a horse to walk around the winch and turn it so it tightened the cable and pulled the church forward. When a log rolled free from under the church, it was hauled back to the front and started under the church again. After the building got up to the winch, they unwound the cable, moved the winch forward, and started all over again.”

The move turned out to be positive for St. John’s and the congregation began to grow. In 1910 the congregation purchased an additional 43,714 feet of land from Matthew and Ella Laughlin. This purchase allowed church officials to establish an independent parish known as the Langley Parish which covered about 50 square miles. This was followed by the erection of a rectory in which a minister would reside who would only serve the newly created parish and St. John’s Episcopal Church. The rectory was completed in the spring of 1913. The Reverend William Painter became the first rector of St. John’s on October 1, 1913. An additional six-foot strip of land adjacent to the church property was purchased from the School and Civic League in 1916 upon which a parish hall was constructed in 1922. The parish hall operated as a community center but was used for many more activities that included a motion picture theatre, antique shows, the Parish Players, and, for a brief time in the early 1950s, the “Straw Hat Players,” a summer theatre group.

The congregation at St. John’s grew steadily over the years. And the area around the McLean stop became the core of McLean. The closing of the railroad in 1934 had little effect on St. John’s. This was because the core congregation, even though rural, had significantly expanded and the automobile had become the mode of travel, making it easier for people to get to church activities. The tracks were removed and the railbed became Old Dominion Drive and covered with asphalt pavement. After World War II, when many who worked for the War effort decided to remain in the area, the church was “bulging at the seams,” particularly during Sunday worship services. People were now arriving in automobiles and the limited parking became an issue. It was time to find a new site upon which to build a larger church. On October 29, 1953, the congregation voted to purchase 12.92 acres along Georgetown Pike; the purchase price would not surpass $2000 per acre. The property was purchased from Catherine and Oswald Carper on March 24, 1954.  Ground was broken on March 27, 1955, for the new church and the first services were held in the new building on July 15, 1956.    

The issue now was what to do with the Chain Bridge Road property. The original church building and parish hall were vacant, but the Reverend Al Matthews continued to live in the rectory until September 1959. The area had been zoned commercial. The vestry of St. John’s sold 28,031 square feet of property, which included the church and parish hall, on May 29, 1959, to Virginia Stations, Inc. Both buildings were taken down and a filling station was built on the site. The sale of 32,338 square feet of property to John and Esther Hampton, that included the rectory, followed on December 3, 1959. The Hamptons kept the rectory and leased space to local businesses such as Stell Insurance Agency, Frederick W. Berens Real Estate, Crowell & Company Real Estate, and John R. Hampton Plumbing and Heating.

The Hamptons sold the rectory property to Frances and Paul Justice on April 10, 1964, who moved their McLean Service Station business from its location at Chain Bridge Road and Old Dominion Drive to the new site and continued to rent the adjacent rectory building starting with Hicks Realty, Inc. Beginning in 2000 renowned photographer Jeff Lubin used the space for his portrait studio. He vacated in 2015 and the former rectory for St. John’s Episcopal Church was occupied by NOVA Firearms. This was extremely controversial because the property backed up to the playground of the Franklin Sherman Elementary School. There were citizen protests. In September of 2017 NOVA Firearms relocated to another location. The old rectory building sat vacant for over a year and a half until Boss Design Center, a remodeling agency, set up shop in 2018. The façade of the traditional white clapboard building was dramatically changed. Boss Design painted the outside a dark blue-black, gave it a white roof, and highlighted the trim around the windows in bright yellow. It is the same structure; just a different coat of paint.

Residents, particularly newcomers, have little knowledge of the history of McLean, an unincorporated community with a total of 24.88 square miles. I feel that McLean is fortunate the rectory remains today. Even though the original St. John’s church building and parish hall have disappeared, the 1913 rectory building with its colorful facade, gives today’s residents a glimmer toward understanding “footprints” that helped shape the community in which they live.

Share this Post!

Related post