GOTHIC WAS ONE of the latest styles introduced in antebellum Charleston, and decorative details of the Gothic style pervade the Huguenot Church at 136 Church Street. The highlights include pointed windows, pier buttresses (the extending supports on the outside of the church) with pinnacles, and simulated vaulting.
Even the cast iron fence has Gothic details: its posts end in little imitations of pointed vaults—a design that mirrors the cast-iron trim around the top of the front windows.
Instead of being constructed of stone, the church is stucco-covered brick and has a lathe-and-plaster ceiling. While this was standard for the American Gothic Revival, it was considered less than adequate by the standards of the leading proponent of the style, Augustus Welby Pugin.
At first glance, this church may seem to have little in common with St. Philip’s just down the street, but in terms of the plan of its nave and aisles, St. Philip’s is actually more Gothic. A similarity they share is that in their respective reconstructions, the interiors of both churches were “opened up” for the congregation to be better able to hear a sermon—which is the principle part of the Protestant service—and Huguenots were, after all, French Protestants.
Charleston architect and author Samuel Gaillard Stoney called the Huguenot church “nothing but a tent, but a very fine tent.” The architect, E.B. White (who also designed the steeple of St. Philip’s), nevertheless managed to achieve a good deal of Gothic verticality by placing the pier buttresses close together.
He also created a richness of style through the careful use of ornamental features. Most noticeable of these is the pointed arch which you can see over the entrance, around the windows, in the vaulting, in many interior details, and on the stanchions on the fence.
The outside of the church has a quiet charm. Inside, a precious stillness pervades a broad room that is intimate and ornamental, with soothing colors of brown, blue, and white. You feel as though you have stepped inside a Gothic Revival jewelry box. Although the building is small, the interior has a grand spaciousness due to the vaulting that extends almost to the ridge of the roof.
This French Protestant church was founded about 1681 by Huguenot refugees from the Protestant persecutions in France. The first church was built on its present site in 1687, but was destroyed in 1796 during an attempt to stop the spread of fire which had burned a large surrounding area.
The original building was replaced in 1800 and then dismantled in 1844 to make way for the present Gothic Revival edifice, designed by E.B. White. The structure was damaged during the Civil War and nearly demolished in the earthquake of 1886. The present building dates to 1845 and is the only remaining independent Huguenot church in America.
Here is a short video of the interior:
If you get inside, look for the beautiful Huguenot cross which was designed in the form of a Maltese cross, with four triangles meeting at the center. Each triangle has two rounded points, signifying the eight Beatitudes of Matthew 5: 3-10. Between the triangles are four fleurs de lis, symbolizing purity, and four open spaces in the form of four hearts, for love and loyalty.
In the pendant version shown here, a dove is suspended from the lower triangle by a gold ring, signifying the Holy Spirit. In times of persecution, a pearl, symbolizing a teardrop, replaced the dove.
The four arms of the Maltese cross are sometimes regarded as the heraldic form of the four petals of the Lily of France which grows in the south of France. The arms symbolize the four Gospels.
This unique church—small as it is, American as it is—has an indescribable quality that seems characteristic of Gothic cathedrals in Europe. As you enter and close the doors behind you, you experience the distinct sense of having left “the world” behind for a time. You step into a safe, meditative chamber where, undisturbed, you can gather your Self before venturing again into the distracting busyness of living.
Just inside those gray-white walls is an impeccable haven for spiritual refreshment. ¶
(Learn more about architectural terms: See this helpful glossary.)
Copyright Notice: all material in this series is the exclusive property of Gene Waddell. If you want to reuse any of it in any form, you must get permission in writing from firstname.lastname@example.org.