St. Michael's Episcopal Church, a National Historic Landmark, is one of
the finest Colonial American churches in the country and the oldest church in
Charleston. Although the architect is unknown, the church was built between 1752
and 1761 and resembles 18th-century English pattern book examples widely used
throughout the colonies. It is similar in many respects to London's St. Martin-in-the-Fields,
designed by James Gibbs. Prominent and elegant features of the two-story stuccoed
brick church are its giant classical portico and a 186-foot high massively proportioned
steeple. The history of the congregation of St. Michael's is rooted in that of
St. Philip's Episcopal. The first St. Philip's church stood
at this site from approximately 1681 to 1727. In 1751, the congregation divided,
and the residents of the lower half of the city formed St. Michael's.
15 years after its doors opened, St. Michael's became Charleston's focal point
of Colonial resistance to the British. During the Revolutionary period, the church
tower was a target for British ship gunners. In the hopes of decreasing it's visibility
the white tower was painted black, which made it even more visible against the
blue sky. Contributing to the war effort, the lead roof was melted down for bullets.
The steeple continued to function as a navigational landmark and observation post
during all subsequent major American military conflicts, as well as a fire lookout
until the late 19th century.
Michael's has amazingly survived several hurricanes, wars, fires, earthquakes
and a cyclone with little alteration to its architecture. When damaged, the church
has been carefully restored or reconstructed. The current portico dates to the
late 1880s, and is a replica of the original which was damaged in the 1886 earthquake.
The interior of the church still retains its traditional 18th-century English
design, with a three-sided second story gallery and native cedar box-pews. The
pews, including Number 43 used by George Washington in 1791 and General Robert
E. Lee in 1861, have recently been restored to their 18th-century finish. St.
Michael's bells are among the city's most beloved treasures, imported from England
in 1764. During the Revolutionary War the bells were taken to England as a prize
of war, but a London merchant purchased and returned them. During the Civil War,
they were sent to Columbia, but cracked in a great fire there in 1865. The metal
fragments were salvaged and sent to England to be recast in their original moulds
and rehung. St. Michael's continues to be a major city landmark, representing
ecclesiastical law in its prominent position at the "Four Corners of the Law,"
originally the Civic Square in the 17th-century plan of the city.