If you read my previous post, you know that visiting several religious institutions was the main reason I was in Charleston. Here is a survey of the breathtaking architecture and rich history I encountered while I was there.
French Huguenot Church
This church was founded around 1681 after French protestants (Calvinists) fled persecution and sought refuge on America's shores. The first building on this site was completed in 1687, but when a fire raged through the neighborhood, the church was detonated in an effort to stop the blaze from spreading (can you imagine having to be the one to make the decision to blow it up?) A second church was built here in 1800, but closed in 1823 due to low attendance. This structure was built around 1844 and today is the only active French Calvinist congregation in the United States. It is said to be an excellent example of Gothic Revival architecture.
This Erben organ has a wonderful story behind it. Apparently Union soldiers dismantled it and were carrying it back to their ship after conquering Charleston during the Civil War. The church's organist gathered reinforcement and pled with the soldiers to return it. They did, and it's still in the church today.
The piece in the middle of the triangle (which I assume symbolizes the Trinity) is a French Huguenot cross.
I absolutely loved the ceiling in this place. It's called a groin vault ceiling, and is often seen in Gothic architecture.
L: Stairway to heaven, or the balcony at the French Huguenot Church (and yes, the view from up there is heavenly.) R: The stairway coming down from the bell tower at the Unitarian Church of Charleston.
Here's the outside of the French Huguenot Church. Unfortunately, they were doing some kind of work on the building and one whole side was covered in scaffolding.
The Unitarian Church in Charleston
This gorgeous church was built in 1772 to accommodate the overflow from the burgeoning Circular Congregational Church. Right before the second church was completed, the Revolutionary War broke out and the building was used as a barracks. As you might imagine, the building suffered significant damage. It was repaired and rededicated in 1787, and for the next 30 years both the Unitarian Church and the Circular Church shared ministers and sermons. But in 1817, one of the ministers converted to Unitarianism and of course there was a church split. In 1852 church member Francis D. Lee was hired to modernize the structure. Inspired by the Chapel of Henry VII at Westminster Abbey and St. George's Chapel at Windsor Castle, Lee constructed the "Perpendicular Gothic Revival" style church that stands today. However, over the years it has sustained major damage, including a devastating earthquake in 1886 that left it in shambles. (See photo here.) Thankfully it was repaired.
The graveyard at the Unitarian Church is modeled after an Engligh garden. Volunteers tend to the grounds throughout the year.
St. Michael's Episcopal Church
St. Michael's is the oldest church in Charleston. The following blurb is from the National Park Service, and I think tells the story of the steeple quite well.
"Approximately 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 its 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."
Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim
This synagogue was truly one of my favorite places to visit. Floy Work, the executive director, was a wellspring of knowledge and spent a great deal of time showing us the facility.
Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim is the second oldest synagogue in the United States, and the oldest in continuous use.
This congregation embraced orthodoxy when it was founded in the late 1700's. The installation of an organ in 1840 signaled the church's reach toward reform, and in fact Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim is widely acknowledged as having been the birthplace of modern Jewish reform.
The photo below shows what's called a Yahrzeit tablet. On it are the names of people who have died; a bulb is illumined to commemorate the week of each person's death. I'd never heard of this tradition and I must admit, it made me want to be a part of this congregation. What a cool way to "remember."
The painting below depicts what the synagogue looked like in its first iteration. Women were reportedly seated upstairs, while their husbands filled the floor. Today, the congregation has a female Rabbi.
Circular Congregational Church
As you can see, this church was also undergoing some renovations -- scaffolding on both sides (if a circular building even has sides!) This is the view from the back. Today we don't think much at all about a circular building, but back when this was built in the 1800's, it was quite the progressive design. I can almost hear folks saying, "Who's ever heard of a round building?" The unconventional architecture made a statement in its day, and reportedly conveyed a willinginess to think outside the God box.
Today we tend to think of gravestones in terms of necessity and utility. In the 1700's, they were works of art. The graveyard at the Circular Congregational Church reportedly houses the largest single collection of colonial "funerary art" in the south, as many affluent Charleston citizens had slate headstones imported from New England. The earliest grave in this cemetery is from 1695.
First Scots Presbyterian Church
Unfortunately this church didn't make it in to my article because there wasn't enough room. First Scots was established in 1731, when "twelve Scottish families separated themselves amicably from the Independent Meeting House (now the Circular Congregational Church). This separation allowed them to govern themselves according to the forms and discipline of the Church of Scotland as opposed to the congregational system." We visited on a day when they were "greening" the church for Christmas, so access was limited.
The Gateway Walk
The sign is pretty self-explanatory, but I'll add a bit of history. In 1930 Clelia Peronneau McGowan, President of the Garden Club of Charleston, proposed that a walkway be constructed to connect Archdale Street and Philadelphia Alley. Having been to Paris where she had enjoyed a similar garden-like walkway, McGowan spearheaded the effort to create this delightful passage where leisurely walking tours continue in Charleston to this day. We walked from the Circular Congregational Church to the Unitarian Church via the Gateway Walk, and it was truly lovely.