A Church on Stilts, Safe from the Flood

There it was, just as we’d envisioned, like an ark floating atop the floodwaters. Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Rapidan, Virginia, survived heavy rainstorms last week as the waters of the adjacent Rapidan River overflowed their banks, cresting at nearly 24 feet—11 feet above flood stage.

From the Culpeper Start-Exponent

The church didn’t used to be high and dry like this. A parishioner called us in 1996 after two historic floods within a year of each other filled the sanctuary with water and mud, washing away prayer books and hymnals and doing great damage to the church structure and its adjacent guild hall.

The church as it originally looked before the 1990s floods

A tour of the site, which lies in the river’s flood plain, revealed so much erosion along a pedestrian path that the resulting hole in the ground could fit an entire car. But there was almost no erosion around a nearby grouping of trees, which had separated the waters like pilings on a dock. We quickly realized we needed to raise the church on stilts to achieve the same effect the next time waters came rushing through.

The resulting renovation in 1998 involved moving the church and guildhall about 100 feet farther from the river bed:

The stilts are clad in horizontal white boards that flow seamlessly from the new steps up to the church and guild hall.


Photo by Rick Foster

A simple iron arch atop the main steps follows the shape of the church’s original gothic entry.

Last week’s flood, exactly 20 years later, was the first time the stilts were put to the test, and they passed with flying colors. This little church will survive—unscathed—for many more Sundays to come.