St. Philip’s Protestant Episcopal Church
THE CURRENT BUILDING at 146 Church Street is the third St. Philip’s Church. It is from an 1836 design by Joseph Hyde which partly replicates the second St. Philip’s that was constructed c. 1721–1733, but which burned in 1835.
The exterior of the building closely follows the c. 1721 design, although the interior was largely redesigned based on James Gibbs’s St. Martin in the Fields, in England. The steeple was added in 1848–1850 by E. B. White who also designed, among other things, the city market hall and the portico of the main building at the College of Charleston.
One thing that makes St. Philip’s an appropriate place to begin a tour of Charleston churches is that its porticoes reproduce the earliest use in the province of Roman porticoes. These and other features greatly influenced how churches of most denominations looked for the next one hundred years. During that time, attached porticoes with monumental Roman Doric columns and side doors became standard.
St. Philip’s also has not one or two, but three porticoes, and the placement of the building is unique in the way that it projects into the street. The apse faces east, as usual, but the body of the third church was moved west so that a north and south portico could be added to the entrance to create impressive views from Church Street—as well as to create a plan in the form of a Latin cross. The second church had its side porticoes centered on Church Street, but the third church was placed farther east to widen the street.
Another distinguishing architectural trait is that this was the first church in the city to have large pilasters (reliefs projecting from the outer walls to suggest columns) along its outer sides. In this case, they were evenly spaced to resemble the peristyle (the outside row of columns) of a classical temple. Notice how well the capitals (the crown) of the pilasters match the real capitals atop the columns in front of the church.
The arcaded nave (the arched, central part of the church seen in the photo at right) also sets St. Philip’s apart. No other Neoclassical church in Charleston has this graceful feature.
The apse (the domed ceiling at the east end) that Hyde designed also included a half dome with coffers (recessed ceiling panels) as in the Pantheon in Rome, to which he added rosettes. When the east end was lengthened after a fire in 1920, architects Simons & Lapham had the original, surviving rosettes recast, and they replaced some Italianate pilasters in the apse to recreate the impression of an early 18th-century interior.
Of special note are the monumental Corinthian columns in the nave which support Renaissance-style entablature blocks (large squares above the capitals) on top of which span arcades with rosettes (rose-shaped decorations) and angelic cupids. When you study them, the proportions seem awkward, yet they create the visual effect of an additional upward thrust that adds grandeur to the church.
The previous interior had had plain piers (simple column-like supports) supporting the balconies, with Corinthian pilasters placed against the piers, and with masonry arches above them. The piers were good supports, but they took a lot of space and they blocked the view and sound.
Consequently, when the third church was built, Hyde persuaded the congregation to replace the piers and pilasters with actual columns, and the masonry arches with decorative wooden ones. The result was a broader, more unified, more elegant nave, and a better lit interior where the congregation could see and hear more easily.
The relatively narrow balconies also allow for a wide nave, which, along with the slender columns and improved light, creates the impression of a space larger than it is—a successful illusion that allows a tremendous amount of ornate detail to float effortlessly inside the church. Notice, for instance, how the bases of the Corinthian columns seem to rest on top of the pews.
Along the interior walls, don’t miss the outstanding 19th-century memorial tablets, such as the one shown here. In this example, the composition, drapery, and expressiveness—all of which are achieved in relief, not three-dimensional, sculpture—are worthy of admiration.
The building’s exterior was initially intended to have the 113’ tower rebuilt, but White convinced the congregation to build a taller, 180’ steeple of the Wren-Gibbs type. He based the design primarily on the steeples of St. Michael’s and the Circular Congregational Church (whose steeple was later destroyed). The result was a building that resembles more closely the churches constructed in London in the early 18th century.
It is also worth your time to appreciate the massive, ornate, wrought-iron gates outside. Although the ironwork is thick and rough, notice how fluid, lyrical, and varied-yet-harmonious the design is.
The large gates facing north and south on Church Street date from c. 1838. Clearly, they were crafted by men who were as much artisans as the building architects, and the church would not stand as elegantly as it does without their articulate frame.
Don’t miss the small, 4-foot-high gate at the main, west entrance. Look carefully and you will see that its design closely resembles the kneeling gate in the chancel of St. Michael’s Church (at the entrance to its altar) which was widely copied after its installation there in c. 1772.
Also of note are the gates leading into the St. Philip’s cemetery across the street which date from c. 1770. They have a delicate, intricate leaf pattern, and the downward swoop in the design beautifully mirrors the fence that follows the curve of Church Street.
As a finale to your visit, be sure to walk to the northeast side of the church (the back left corner as you face the church) to see the small chapel shown here. This was originally a parish house built c. 1840 in the form of a Roman temple, but without a portico. The building has a simple beauty and dignity that befit its setting.
Churches are intended to be worlds unto themselves—sanctuaries—not only during Sunday service. And St. Philip’s is certainly a nice one to retreat to, and to relish while you’re there.
(Want to know more about architectural terms: Check out this helpful glossary.)
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