From all appearances, The Lewinsville Presbyterian Church in McLean is just another run-of-the-mill copy of a colonia church, the kind that sprang up in suburbia in the 1950s to serve the religious needs of a burgeoning population.
But step into the church's graveyard, peer at the names and dates on the weathered tombstones and suddenly the rich heritage of this pre-Civil War congregation is spread out before you. Stop next door at Evans Farm Inn and more of the church's past comes alive in a red-frame country store that once was the church's Sunday school.
The church at 1724 Chain Bridge Rd. -- with a history that also includes a two-year period during the Civil War when Union troops occupied the site -- recently was named a national Presbyterian historical site.
The 135-year-old church was designated "American Presbyterian and Reformed Historical Site No. 205" by the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia.
"We did not believe that we had a particularly right history that would be noteworthy. There was a little hesitancy about making application" for the historical designation, said the Rev. John P. Smith, copastor.
However, Frank Gapp, a member for 32 years and author of the church history, had faith in the church's significance. He applied last fall for the historic marker and convinced Presbyterian officials that the church played an important role in local religious and American history.
Gapp said one of the church's founders was Commodore Thomas Ap Catesby Jones, an American naval commander in the War of 1812 and a Fairfax County leader in the early 19th century. Another church founder sheltered Dolly Madison when the British burned the White House in 1814, he said.
The church started with 17 members in 1846. It prospered until the fall of 1816, when the Civil War descended on the area. The battle of Lewinsville, in which both sides claimed victory, was fought nearby and eventually Union troops moved in and took over the church for two years. Officers used the home adjoining the church as their headquarters and the soldiers, according to Gapp, ripped out the pews and converted it into a stable for their horses.
After the war, parishioners began the slow process of rebuilding. In 1900, they sued the federal government for damages to the property while it was occupied by federal troops. They won, collecting $1,760 for rent and the cost of repairs.
It wasn't until 1940 that the church started growing rapidly and the congregation decided to hire a full-time pastor. With heavy migration to the suburbs after World War II, the church reached a peak of about 1,300 members several years ago and has 930 members today, Smith said.
The original white frame church built in 1846 no longer stands. Riddled with termites, it was torn down in 1956 to make room for a larger colonial-style sanctuary in red brick.
A few pieces of the old church were rescued by the late Bayard Evans, who used the hand-hewn beams, rough flooring and bubble-filled glass in the construction of his Evans Farm Inn next door. Evans also hauled the old Sunday school over to his land, where he reopened it as a country store and antique shop.
The only remnant of the original church still on the site is the cemetery, one of the oldest in Fairfax County.