GILBRETH COLUMN: Proposed church zoning change could be a Wholly Pity
In the news department, it’s pretty widely recognized that there has been a general trend toward secularization in Western Christian denominations, so much so that in Denmark, for example, less than 10 percent of the population routinely attends services.
The problem may not be as bad in the U.S., but what might surprise Charlestonians is that several of our churches have already been lost to secularization and converted to nonreligious use, and that several others could be on the way, and soon.
If this trend were to continue, then Charleston’s moniker of “The Holy City” would have to be changed to something else, like maybe “The Holy City — In Appearance Only.”
The most egregious example of this even forgoes any semblance of appearance, and that would be the Old Seaman’s Chapel at 32 N. Market St., the latest incarnation of which is now a bar called Mad River. A review on the website Yelp describes it thusly: “This place is very cool. It’s an old church that has been transformed into a bar — BEAUTIFUL. Drink specials are fantastic here — I got the bottomless mimosas ... and went through a whole bottle of champagne on my own ... The inside is incredibly spacious, lots of mirrors, HUGE BAR. I am sure this place is absolutely wild on weekend nights!!”
Cool! Sounds like a great place to get smashed and then hurl on the spot where the altar used to be!! But before I do that, let me point out that the fate of the St. Andrews Lutheran Church buildings at 43 Wentworth St. is before the city’s Board of Zoning Adjustment and has been reset for the June 5 agenda. This historic and beautiful Greek Revival-style church, which was built 1839, went on the market four years ago. A young, vibrant Presbyterian congregation now occupies the church.
Now a very interested buyer has stepped up while seeking a zoning variance that would allow two offices and three residential units in the educational building and the sanctuary, respectively.
The obvious concern is that the permanent loss of a historic church in an important part of town may have a very detrimental effect on the fabric of what is and should remain a wonderful mixed-use neighborhood.
The issue is further complicated by the giving patterns of parishioners, many of whom find it virtually impossible to tithe and, unlike their European counterparts, generally do not include churches in their estate planning. (So whereas Europeans may not attend church as often, they seem to do a pretty good job of at least keeping them operational.)
Consequently, residential and commercial developers will always have more disposable income than churches, particularly the smaller ones. But it’s not just the smaller ones that may be endangered when considering the size of projects going on at larger churches. I don’t have cold, hard information on this, but I’ve heard it said, for example, that Grace Episcopal Church is facing restoration fees northward of $10 million, including the earthquake-related damage.
It would therefore behoove preservation groups, city leaders, church organizations and neighborhood advocates to gather and discuss the fate of all our churches, or certainly those in decline.
With all this cruise ship controversy, I say ramp up various berthing fees so the city can at least help save one of their prized sanctuaries.
Among the questions being raised in the St. Andrews controversy is whether the requested variances can be granted in view of the language in the city’s variance code.
Those questions could be moot. Pastor Craig Bailey of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, which now occupies the Wentworth Street church, tells us his congregation has a right of first refusal to purchase the property and he is still “hopeful something can be worked out.”
But the proposed zoning change does tell us that clearly part of what makes Charleston so special stands the risk of being significantly damaged. And that would be a “Wholly Pity.”
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth@ comcast.net.