Religious Architecture of Charleston

Church steeple in background of photo.

Photo by Khanrak, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Charleston's church architecture, like the city's architecture in general, is overwhelmingly of English derivation, as might be expected in an English colonial establishment which has been referred to as a "Little London."

Georgian Palladian

During the Colonial era the prevailing architecture was English Georgian, which was founded securely on the work of the late Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, as interpreted by Indigo Jones and subsequent English architects. In church building, the translation of Palladio's influence came through the designs of Christopher Wren and James Gibbs.

Although South Carolina's religious freedom (for all non-Catholics) attracted many Dissenters, the Church of England was the established church after 1706. Even before that, the '"English Church" was dominant and its houses of worship were public buildings. The first structure of St. Philip's Church, the first Anglican parish, was erected in 1681-82 at the southeast comer of the Meeting and Broad Streets, the site now occupied by St. Michael’s Church. John Oldmixon wrote in 1708 that it was "large and stately enough," and the "most remarkable" of the town's public buildings. It was built of black cypress upon a brick foundation.

The intriguing question is whether or not this first "English Church" had a tall pointed steeple inspired by Wren's steepled churches in London, built after the Great Fire of 1666. The Gothic steeple had been in disfavor, due to the influence of the Italian Renaissance, until it was revived by Wren and classicized through the use of arches, pilasters and other devices. It is not impossible that the first St. Philip's had such a classicized steeple. On the other hand, the Congregational, Anabaptist and French Calvinist churches and the Quaker Meeting House, all of which were built about the same time, were simple, steepleless structures, more a tribute to the Lords Proprietors' guarantee of liberty of conscience than to the architectural aspirations of their congregations.

Colonial Charleston was the wealthiest of English cities in America, and the city's elite maintained close ties with London. That a sophisticated taste in architecture was present early in Charleston was illustrated by the second St. Philip's Church, built in 1710-23. The brick church featured not only a steeple but also three monumental Roman Doric porticoes, depicted in an illustration from London's Gentleman's Magazine in 1753. The steeple, a polygonal tower topped by a polygonal lantern, dome and cupola, perhaps was based on the steeple of Wren's St. Magnus the Martyr, London, or on that of St. Ignatius, the Jesuit church at Antwerp.

St. Philip's undoubtedly was the most sophisticated church building in the English colonies when it was built. It antedated Christ Church in Philadelphia, which was the second church in America to use an applied order, and Peter Harrison's King's Chapel in Boston, the second church for which a giant order portico was designed. The English aesthete Edmund Burke later described St. Philip's as "spacious, and executed in a very handsome taste, exceeding everything of that kind which we have in America." The proud new edifice was sited to protrude into Church Street, so that the tower and porticoes provided a terminus to the vista. The siting of the church as a vistal terminus reflected a Baroque city planning concept, prototypes of which included similar building sitings in some of the plans for rebuilding the City of London after the Great Fire of 1666.

The taste for Palladian and Wren-Gibbs design outlasted the Colonial era, and Charleston's conservatism in that regard triumphed in the rebuilding of St. Philip's Church following a fire in 1835. During a debate on the design of the replacement structure, the view was expressed that Charleston's older buildings were superior, in design and construction, to those in the newer 19th century styles. As a result, St. Philip's vestry insisted that architect Edward Hyde rebuild the Georgian church exactly as it had been before the fire, Hyde acceded to their request except for minor changes on the exterior, but persuaded them to let him model the new interior after that of James Gibbs' St, Martin's-in-the-Fields. A decade later, the vestry commissioned architect Edward Brickell White to design the present steeple, in the Wren-Gibbs tradition.

The third St. Philip’s might be considered anticipatory of the Colonial Revival movement of the late 19th century, if it were not for the motivation of the conservative vestry and congregation. Their goal was not to revive the architecture of the past, which would have been an innovative step, but to continue it. Therefore St. Philip's has to be cited as a rare instance of "Georgian Survival." White's 1849 steeple for St. Philip's did not replicate its domed predecessor but was consciously patterned after, and made intentionally higher than, the steeple of St. Michael's Church.

St. Michael’s Church remains Charleston's oldest church edifice. An Irish architect, Samuel Cardy, built and largely designed St. Michael's Church, erected in 1751-61 on the site of the first St. Philip's, at the southeast corner of Broad and Meeting streets. Like St. Philip's, St. Michael's exemplifies the Wren-Gibbs tradition of American Colonial church building. Like many Colonial churches of the period, it was inspired by James Gibbs' design for St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London, c. 1726, and many of its details are reminiscent of plates from Gibbs' A Book of Architecture, published in 1728.

The initial design of St. Michael's was by a Mr. Gibson (possibly Robert Gibson, Sr). However, Cardy, who became involved in the project after construction had begun, significantly altered the original plan. Cardy was responsible for the remarkable ceiling, which spans some 60 feet without visible support, being carried on hidden trusses. In that feature, St. Michael's recalls churches of Sir Nicholas Hawksmoor, such as St. Alfege's, Greenwich (1713-18), rather than St. Martin's, which has arches on columns supporting the ceiling (and which provided the model for the interior of the third St. Philip's, as noted above). Cardy also contributed the steeple, which has three octagonal upper tiers over a square tower. Cardy solved the problem of supporting the diagonal faces of the octagon over the voids at the comers of the square, by carrying them on corbelled brick half arches, known as "squinches," which span the corners of the square.

Robert Mills

America's first native-born professional architect, the Charlestonian Robert Mills, designed for several Charleston congregations. Mills had a varied architectural background. He studied under James Hoban, a Palladian traditionalist who was the architect of the White House; he was a protégée of Thomas Jefferson, who defined his own style at Monticello; and he worked under Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who brought Rational Neoclassicism from Europe to America. The latter was based on the philosophe Laugier's Essai sur architecture, in which he advocated a more functional approach to classical architecture, anticipating Louis Sullivan and the Beaux Arts. Although French in origin, the Rational Neoclassical in America was based mainly on the English version, as evoked by Sir John Soane and George Dance, whose work was studied by Latrobe, Mills developed a distinctive Millsian style, a robust and geometric form of Rational Neoclassicism, but the influence of all his teachers is evident in his buildings as well, including the more conservative elements.

Mills' first major contribution to Charleston architecture was the design of the Circular Congregational Church, built in 1804-06, which was the first Pantheon-like church in America. In the Circular Church he employed a dome of laminated ribs, such as was found in Jefferson's copy of Philibert Delorme's Invention pur batir les couvertures courbes, and which Jefferson had used in the dome at Monticello. Afterwards, Mills used the Delorme system in round and octagonal churches in Richmond and Baltimore.

Mills' plans for the Circular Congregational Church included a portico of stolid Doric columns, and no steeple, reflecting the Rational Neoclassicist influence of his mentor, Latrobe. His plans were altered by the building committee, which substituted Corinthian columns attenuated in the then-current Adamesque taste, and subsequently the portico was replaced with a more elaborate one, designed by the Charleston firm of Jones & Lee in the 1850s. Similarly, the church engaged Charles Reichardt in 1838 to add a Wren-Gibbs steeple. Reflecting the "Georgian Survival" trend noted previously at St. Philip's, Reichardt patterned the steeple closely after that of St. Michael's.

The changes made the church unrecognizable as a Mills building. The original Mills design became suggestible again only after the great fire of 1861 reduced the church to a brick skeleton, In rebuilding in the 1890s, the Congregationalists kept the circular concept, but it was reinterpreted in the then-fashionable Richardsonian Romanesque style.

Mills may also have designed the First Scots Presbyterian Church, built in 1814. The architect of the church has not been identified, but Mills' family were members of the congregation. The facade of the church features twin towers capped by domes, flanking a partially recessed portico. This scheme is reminiscent of Latrobe's design for St. Mary's Cathedral in Baltimore, which anteceded First Scots Presbyterian by just a few years. It should be noted that James and John Gordon, builders and designers of the Second Presbyterian Church and St. Paul's, Radcliffeboro (see below) also were members of First Scots Presbyterian.

Mills was especially proud of his design for the First Baptist Church in Charleston, built ca. 1818. He described it as "purely Grecian in its style, simply grand in its proportions, and beautiful in its detail." The superlatives are true, except the building is not "purely Greek." The portico, with its Roman Doric columns, is more Palladian-Georgian than Greek Revival. The portico is not an integral component, as is the portico of a Classical temple, but is appendaged to the rectangular body of the church in the Wren-Gibbs tradition. The use of two tiers of arched windows along the sides also constitutes a continuation of Georgian tradition. Such conservative features may reflect the lingering influence of his early training under Hoban.

However, newer Rational Neoclassical concepts are revealed in the simplification of ornament, the differentiation of the parts of the building -- portico, vestibule, auditorium -- and in the massy, windowless attic, reminiscent of the work of the French Rational Neoclassicist, Claude-Nicholas Ledoux, as well as some work of Latrobe. The church formerly had a domed cupola, as well, reminiscent of Latrobe's design for St. Paul's in Washington, built in 1815.

Jeffersonian Classicism

Mills' mentor Thomas Jefferson developed his own style in his Virginia buildings, characterized by Roman Doric porticoes and arched openings, and fanlights everywhere, including the pediment of the portico. Two Charleston churches, Second Presbyterian and St. Paul's, Radcliffeboro (the latter now the Cathedral of St. Luke and St.Paul), are in this style. Both were designed and built by the Gordon brothers, James and John, ca. 1809-1811. Both also developed structural problems in their towers, so that their steeples were never completed. Second Presbyterian's tower was capped by a simple lantern, while that of St. Paul's was topped off, incongruously, by a Gothic parapet.

Greek Revival

The first of the popular 19th century eclectic styles to arrive in Charleston was the academic Greek Revival, which was based on a study of the temple architecture of classical Greece. There had been little interest in Greek architecture, since the Italian Renaissance chauvinistically based its architecture on Roman models which were considered superior to their Greek prototypes. Interest in Greek forms was stimulated in the mid-18th century by scholarly expeditions to Greece and by the publication of works such as The Antiquities of Athens, containing on-site drawings of classical Greek ruins by the English architects Nicholas Revett and James Stuart. The architects of the academic Greek Revival movement sought to design modern buildings using authentic Greek elements of design, gleaned from the study of prototypes in Greece and the eastern Mediterranean.

In Charleston's church architecture the Greek Revival had a flowering after the great fire of 1838. The fire reduced to rubble a large part of the King and Meeting streets commercial area, and most of Ansonborough, a residential neighborhood. The fire, though tragic, nevertheless provided a unique opportunity for the Greek Revival. The majority of structures built in the burnt district during the years after the fire were in that style, and the neighborhood is sprinkled liberally with temple-form buildings.

One of the new churches in the "burnt district" was the Doric temple Second Baptist Church (now the Centenary Methodist Episcopal Church), built in 1842. It was designed by Edward Brickell White, the local architect most identified with the Greek Revival. White felt obliged to defend his design after the church authorities altered his plans to place two additional doors in the facade, behind columns. This, he pointed out, was a departure from precedents in Greek temple design. One of the most beautiful of the Greek temple-form houses of worship in the "burnt district" is Temple Beth Elohim, built -in 1840-41. It was designed for the Reform Jewish congregation by a New York architect, Cyrus Warner. The academicists would have protested that, while its massive fluted Doric columns are authentic, the spacing of the triglyphs, and metopes in the entablature is more Georgian than Greek, and the ceding of the sanctuary has an ornamental saucer dome, which, while gorgeous, is more Roman than Greek. However, those not hemmed by 19th century academic constraints will agree that, although the ensemble is not "purely Greek," the result is superb.

Gothic Revival

The Gothic Revival movement was based on an earnest theological justification for the Gothic as the most proper Christian architecture. The intellectual foundation of this "Ethical Gothic" premise was established in the writings of the British architect Augustus Northmore Welby Pugin, whose conversion to Roman Catholicism guided him to a desire to revive England's medieval Catholic architecture. His ideas were presented in his influential works, Contrasts, or a Parallel between the Noble Edifices of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries and Similar Buildings of the Present Day, published in 1836, and The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture, published in 1841. Pugin's ideals evoked a response among Protestants as well, as they paralleled the ideas of reformers within the Church of England and the Anglican academic community. John Henry Newman and others began in 1833 the Oxford Movement which sought to restore ritual and liturgical richness to the Church of England. The Cambridge Camden Society (later known as the Ecclesiological Society) was formed at Oxford in 1836 by scholars with a common interest in medieval Christian architecture, who advocated through their publication, The Ecclesiologist. For that reason, the Ethical Gothic is also known as the Ecclesiological Gothic.

In the United States, the British born architect, Richard Upjohn, was a subscriber to The Ecclesiologist. His Trinity Church in New York, 1839-1841, had no galleries (which the Ecclesiologists condemned) and introduced a raised altar, an extended chancel and a cross-topped spire (all of which they promoted). The church was built of stone (which they advocated) but the interior vaulting was not executed in stone, but simulated in lath and plaster (of which neither the Ecclesiologists, nor Pugin would have approved).

Charleston architect Edward Brickell White made a "visit [to] the Northern Cities, on professional, calls," in 1842, when Upjohn's Trinity Church was under construction. Subsequently, he designed the Huguenot Church, built in 1844-45. The Huguenot Church was praised locally as "the only specimen of pointed, or emphatically Christian Church Architecture, which has ever been erected in our city." The language indicates a knowledge of Pugin's works, and the design indicates possible direct references to them. In the use of materials, the church owes no allegiance to Pugin or The Ecclesiologist. The crockets and finials, tracery of the principal window, and dripstones are all of cast iron, and the vaulting inside is simulated in lath and plaster. The church is unusual in that it has no tower and spire. It is a simple rectangle with a tent-like roof.

White became South Carolina's foremost Goth, designing Gothic churches, including Grace Church in Wentworth Street, and other structures in Charleston and elsewhere. Grace follows Ethical strictures in having no galleries and is topped by a graceful steeple. However, White employed no stone; the materials, like those of the Huguenot Church, were stuccoed brick, lath and plaster, and cast iron. In the 1970s, White's cast iron crockets, having deteriorated in Charleston's damp climate, were replicated in fiberglass.

The Ethical Gothic fervor inevitably faded, but interest in the Gothic continued. The later Gothic Revival drew inspiration from periods other than the "Middle Pointed" promoted by Pugin and the Ecclesiologists as the ideal. When Francis D. Lee Gothicized the late 18th century structure of the Unitarian Church in 1852-54, he employed the late Gothic of the Tudor period, which the Ethicists had considered debased. Lee gave the church a handsome perpendicular tower, and a magnificent fan-vaulted ceiling, the latter inspired perhaps by ceilings of the Henry VII Chapel at Westminster and the cloisters at Gloucester. Lee designed a similar ceiling for St. Luke's Church (now the Fourth Tabernacle Baptist Church), ca. 1859.

The Brooklyn, New York, based Patrick Charles Keely, an Irish-born architect, designed literally hundreds of Catholic churches in the United States, including three in Charleston. Keely claimed to have been a student of Pugin, England's premier Gothicist. In the 1850s Keely designed the Cathedral of St. Finbar, which was lost in the great fire of 1861, as well as its successor on the same site, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, begun after the 1886 earthquake. The two cathedrals followed the Ethical requirement to be built of stone (Connecticut brownstone) in emulation of the medieval prototypes, and manifested similar but differing versions of Gothic design. Keely also designed the Gothic Revival edifice of St. Patrick's Church, built 1886-87.

John Henry Devereux, the most prolific architect of the post-Civil War era, designed two Gothic Revival churches in the city. St. Matthew’s German Evangelical Lutheran Church, built in 1867-71, originally was polychromed, its stuccoed surface scored and overlayed with paint, mixed with sand, to simulate blocks of different colored stone. That colorful scheme reflected the influence of the English aesthete John Ruskin, who in works such as The Stones of Venice, advocated the use of polychromed stone in church architecture.

Romanesque Revival

Another popular 19th century style for church buildings was the Romanesque Revival. The style was derived from earlier medieval church architecture, before the rise of the Gothic, and is distinguished from the latter mainly in the use of round, rather than pointed, arches.

The firm of Jones & Lee (Edward C. Jones and Francis D. Lee) of Charleston designed the Citadel Square Baptist Church in 1855-56, employing the Norman mode of the Romanesque Revival style for the edifice. The design of Citadel Square Baptist deviated from the model by the use of a steeple (Romanesque churches had bell towers, whereas the steeple spire was a Gothic innovation). The steeple was blown over by a hurricane and the tower was damaged by an earthquake. The tower was repaired and given a lower steeple, designed by Edward Silloway, a Boston architect. Silloway's steeple was lost in a hurricane (Hugo) in 1989, and replaced by a new steeple along the lines of the original, design by Jones & Lee.

Richardsonian Romanesque

The Romanesque Revival of the antebellum period was based mainly on examples in Northwestern Europe. In the late 19th century, another version of the Romanesque was developed by the Boston architect, Henry Hobson Richardson, based on churches of Provence and Spain. Used for the first time in the 1870s in his Trinity Church, Boston, the Richardsonian Romanesque became widely popular in the ensuing decades. Charleston's best Richardsonian Romanesque building is the Circular Congregational Church, built in the 1890s to replace Mills' burned predecessor. Designed by the firm of Stevenson and Green, it features a massive central tower, somewhat reminiscent of Richardson's Trinity Church. Although the "Circular" remains part of the name, the present structure is not really circular but tri-apsidal.

Written by Robert P. Stockton, adjunct professor of history at the College of Charleston.

Last updated: February 22, 2018