Comparing Church Steeples

Sunday, October 15, 2017
by

St. Michael’s Church

CHARLESTON’S TWO MOST ICONIC IMAGES have a lot in common. It is well known, for example, that the congregation of St. Philip’s (“the oldest congregation in South Carolina”) built its first wooden structure in 1681 on the site where St. Michael’s (“the oldest church structure in Charleston”) now stands.

In 1727, St. Philip’s moved to its current location on Church Street and some 25 years later (1751-1752) the St. Michael’s congregation started building its own church on the Meeting Street site where it held its first services in 1761. In 1835, the St. Philip’s structure on Church Street burned down and the main building was rebuilt in 1838, with the steeple added about a decade later. When the math is finally done, St. Philip’s gets to claim the oldest “congregation” while St. Michael’s remains the oldest “structure.”

Their overlapping history is fascinating and so is the architecture of these two steeples which have commanded Charleston’s skyline for centuries. But as with many of the wonders in our midst, it is easy to notice them without seeing them. So do yourself a favor: some early weekend morning or afternoon when the traffic is quiet, stroll downtown for a visual comparison. Admire them from afar and get up close for a good, long look.

Doing so is a visual treat for at least two reasons. Firstly, most American cities don’t have even one church that matches the architectural grandeur of these two. Secondly, even the best pictures you see don’t do justice to the tactile experience of standing in front of these gems. And in their case, they are only three blocks apart, which makes it easy to stroll between them and enjoy several long drafts of their beauty.

Like the churches themselves, the two steeples have a lot in common. For example, in addition to their shared Episcopalian roots, did you know these are the only churches in the area with the combination of a belfry (the shuttered section which houses the bells), a clock tower, and a lantern (the colonnade above the clocks)? That all their upper sections are octagonal and contain all three orders of Greek capitals (Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian)? That both structures are brick and stucco? That they are both slightly off-kilter? That you can’t get a clear distant look at either building from the front? Or that Edward Brickell White (1806–1882) who designed the St. Philip’s steeple was later hired to oversee repairs on St. Michael’s steeple after it was damaged in the Civil War?

It seems a good bet, too, that E.B. White borrowed heavily from St. Michael’s design when he set about designing St. Philip’s steeple in 1848-50. Curiously, while it is recorded that Samuel Cardy was the “builder” of St. Michael’s main building and portico, the steeple architect remains unknown. The whole church is likened to London’s St. Martin-in-the-Fields, but even with that attribution it is remarkable how our unknown architect made the design of St. Michael’s steeple more rounded, more sublimely proportioned, more unified in concept, more graceful, and more elegant. Next to St. Michael’s, St. Martin-in-the-Fields looks like our Custom House with a steeple.

The longer you look at St. Michael’s steeple, the more you realize the perfection of its design. The proportions are massive, yet delicately balanced. The design is simple, yet tastefully ornamented and nowhere overdone. The overall concept is symmetrical, yet full of contrast. The shudders, windows, and arches all echo one another, yet each group stands distinct. The transition into the spire, with its fluted midsection and golden ball on top, could not be easier on the eye.

Overall, the steeple does not throw your vision upward too rapidly or into the sky. Rather, it holds you, gently uplifts you, and somehow manages to convey a sense of majesty. You can’t ask for more from a church steeple, and you would be hard pressed to find another one in America that has the same effect. This steeple is as good as it gets in terms of the essential ingredients of design and using design to influence human nature.

St. Phillip’s Church

The St. Philip’s steeple is also uniquely handsome. While it is only seven feet taller than its cousin, it appears to stretch farther skyward due to a more slender design, an extra section (just below the belfry), and the sharper point of its spire. These elements are further heightened by the grand portico beneath them. The tall Doric columns, the massive entablature above them, and the angular pediment all lend thrust and grandeur to the steeple.

St. Philip’s has no balustrade at the clock level and its iron balcony in the lantern is indiscernible at first glance. As a result, while your eye travels up the steeple it does not pause, and is not held, the way it is on St. Michael’s. The effect is nevertheless graceful and dramatic, and makes you appreciate what E.B. White was up against when he designed it. How to borrow the best from St. Michael’s without imitating or duplicating it? It is interesting to study his response.

Among the differences between the two steeples is that St. Philip’s clock tower has a face in each octagonal panel, whereas St. Michael’s alternates between clocks and windows, with the windows arched so as to connect the design of the clock tower with that of the belfry below and the lantern above (as well as with the shape of the windows in the main building itself). This consistent element provides a seamless transition. Meanwhile the clocks stand out by being placed in four panels directly above the four sides of the steeple’s square base. They tie the upper steeple to its bottom, giving the whole an appearance of solidity, dignity, and strength.

Notice, too, how each section of St. Michael’s steeple, starting at the base, is slightly less tall than the one below it, with the exception of the spire—which, exactly because of its contrast, rises with splendor. The whole thing is an unparalleled masterpiece by someone whose name we don’t know but whose influence touches us more than we know, whether we happen to casually glance at it or carefully examine its magnificent design.

This article first appeared in the October 2017 issue of The Charleston Mercury.

Photos by Peter Ingle


 

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