Fans of old church put faith in Holy City
Those hoping to preserve 43 Wentworth St. as a church are throwing a Hail Mary pass to Charleston City Council.
The Wentworth Street Methodist Protestant Church was built on this site in 1834 and rebuilt after the 1838 fire in a Greek Revival style. It suffered from shelling during the Civil War and became a Lutheran congregation after it merged with Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, which had been on Morris Street. A Sunday school building was built next door in 1894. The church’s interior was redecorated extensively in 1908 and again in the late 1930s.
—From Jonathon Poston’s “The Buildings of Charleston”
And they just might complete it.
Council members could vote Tuesday on overturning a Board of Zoning Appeals decision that allowed the church to be converted into a residence.
City Councilman Blake Hallman said Friday he is concerned that the zoning board’s decision sets a bad precedent that, if left unchallenged, could erode the number of historic churches still in use in the Holy City.
“I’ve talked to enough (City Council colleagues) to expect that this variance will not stand,” he added.
The temple-style church building was built around 1840 as a Methodist church, but it merged with a Lutheran congregation in 1866.
St. Andrews Lutheran Church worshipped in the building until 2006, when it merged with another Lutheran congregation to form the new Holy Spirit Lutheran Church in West Ashley. That church then leased its Wentworth property to Redeemer Presbyterian Church, which still uses the property, said the Rev. Craig Bailey of Redeemer.
But the Wentworth property also has been for sale for years, and businesswoman Nancy Snowden has plans to buy the 6,445-square-foot sanctuary, neighboring 12,441-square-foot fellowship hall and a 15-space parking lot.
Last month, she received a variance from the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals to turn the sanctuary into a home and to convert the fellowship building into two housing units and office space.
That board’s decisions are subject to review by City Council, which normally doesn’t reconsider them but apparently will in this case.
Hallman said he will argue the church property doesn’t have any unusual hardship or extraordinary conditions that would merit a variance.
“It’s an active, viable property,” he said. “I think that it (the variance) sets a very onerous precedent for future churches.”
Since the board’s decision, a growing number of people have questioned what is going on — and whether there’s some way this building can remain as a church. These voices include those currently worshipping there.
Bailey and Nancy Vinson, a Redeemer member, said their congregation started in the Terrace Theatre on James Island in 1999 and welcomed the opportunity to move downtown and be closer to the homeless shelter, public schools and other opportunities for ministry.
Redeemer has paid the cost of utilities and half the insurance bill to lease the property, and it always understood it might have to move one day.
But Bailey said when Redeemer realized the church’s price was dropping, it began wondering if it could stay. He said Redeemer has made its own offer for the property —an offer it believed to be equal to Snowden’s, except that the church asked for more time to arrange financing if its contract was accepted. “All we know is they rejected our offer without comment,” he said.
Snowden previously declined to verify the sales price, and neither she nor officials with Holy Spirit Lutheran Church returned messages left Friday.
Even if the Lutheran church did not want to accept Redeemer’s offer, Vinson wondered whether other congregations might be interested in buying it at a comparable price. “We wouldn’t bat an eye or open our mouths if they were selling it to another church,” she added.
While some Lowcountry churches have been converted to homes or public spaces, the idea can trigger a lot of emotion.
A proposal to convert the New Tabernacle Fourth Baptist Church at Elizabeth and Charlotte streets into a theater was turned down a few years ago after neighbors and others objected.
Still, many congregations in historic church buildings downtown are grappling with the twin challenges of dwindling congregations and rising maintenance costs.
Robert Gurley of the Preservation Society of Charleston said that group is mostly concerned about the variance allowing an office use in the fellowship building next door.
Gurley said the society would like to see a church remain a church, “but what we don’t want to see happen is churches falling down.”
Hallman said if the 43 Wentworth building were vacant, then there would be a more compelling case to allow a new use on the site.
He noted churches often go through periods of prosperity and decline, and the city should do what it can to help them survive during their lowest points.
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.