Huguenot Church ready for the next 150 years
It's not a stretch to say that long lines in front of the Dock Street Theatre's women's restrooms ultimately led to an extensive renovation of the French Huguenot Church across the street.
The full story is both more nuanced yet typical of what happens when repairing an old Charleston building.
Five years ago, a contractor was digging under Church Street to bury an electric transformer, part of the Dock Street's extensive renovation. Its large track hoe successfully busted up the concrete sidewalk but also busted up parts of the 1845 church.
Designed by E.B. White, one of Charleston's most prolific 19th-century architects, the Gothic Revival building developed cracks and broken window panes.
The church filed suit and received a $300,000 settlement that got the repair job going.
And once the work began, it gradually revealed how much more work really needed to be done.
The problems were multiple: Water intrusion over the years had caused brick and mortar to crumble; cementitious paint worsened matters by trapping the water inside the stucco; a rear addition was built poorly and had settled faster than the rest of the building; its handicap access was poor.
With architect Glenn Keyes and Palmetto Craftsmen, Inc., the congregation began to come to grips with what really needed to be done.
Jim McNab, the church's treasurer, says the church has had little money during most of its history. It was closed for part of the 20th century until it reopened in 1980.
But it's congregation has grown since and felt able to tackle generations of benign neglect.
Coming to grips with spending $1 million was the biggest challenge, he says.
“We weren't planning to do the whole thing,” he says. “That's three times our annual budget. It was a big nut to crack, and you had to get people to think about it.”
Bud Hay of Palmetto Craftsmen says the thought was necessary because much of the work would address structural problems that most probably never knew existed.
“You're basically repairing things you can't see,” he says.
The stucco and paint were removed, giving workers the ability to replace about 20,000 damaged bricks. That led to the church's consulting Frances Ford, a conservator and teacher, to research its original color.
What is seen today — a rose hue with gray trim over the arched windows — are the 1845 colors. It's yet another example of historic colors being more lively than the hues that many old Charleston buildings acquired during the 20th century.
Scoring lines on the stucco were restored to the entire building.
The only other noticeable change was driven by a parishioner, Edith Corry.
She wanted a handicap ramp: The building's only entrance had been up a series of brownstone steps.
Keyes' design succeeds because it uses good materials and tucks the ramp along the northern facade. A similarly successful approach was taken a decade ago at Old Bethel Methodist on Calhoun Street.
To access the ramp, a new gate was fashioned into the cast-iron fence along Queen Street. Few will guess it's new.
A new door to the church was created through an existing window opening. It can be reached not only by the wooden ramp but also from the west by brownstone treads — treads salvaged from an old Charleston building and stored at Corry's downtown home for decades.
The church is a National Historic Landmark in part because so few Huguenot churches survive.
Most Huguenots sought to assimilate during the 19th century, and that meant seeking out church services in English. Charleston's is one of the few — if not the only — active ones left in the country, McNab says.
The French Huguenot Church is being rededicated this morning, and McNabb predicts the building should be good for another 150 years.
“We feel like we've done a five-generation overhaul,” he says.
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
Earlier versions of this story incorrectly identified Palmetto Craftsmen, Inc. and misspelled church treasurer Jim McNab's name.
Also, the adjective for the paint that had trapped water inside the stucco was incorrect. The Post and Courier regrets the errors.