Wrought-iron treasure at risk 19th-century fence at local cemetery 1 of Seven to Save

The endangered Werner Ironwork Enclosure forms an oval around several dozen gravesites in Bethany Cemetery.

One of Charleston’s most elaborate wrought-iron creations also ranks among its most endangered.

Those entering Bethany Cemetery off Cunnington Avenue in the Neck Area are greeted by an oval fence with four elaborate gates that, if stretched out, would be almost as long as a football field.

The Werner Ironwork Enclosure is named after its creator, blacksmith Christopher Werner, who hammered out the work sometime between Bethany’s opening in 1856 and his retirement in 1870.

Today, one can see the original grandeur, as three of the four gates remain largely intact. Some of the fencing has been damaged by passing cars, but no main chunks are missing. But a closer look reveals missing elements, and the bottoms of some gates are resting in dirt, which has accumulated over the years. Also, the gilded stars that once were perched atop the surviving iron orbs are gone, as are the iron scrolls that would have identified the names of the several lot owners inside.

A few chunks of the ironwork’s brick foundation have settled and should be straightened up. Finally, a close-up look shows a light layer of rust —and many places where the paint is going or gone.

These are the reasons that recently prompted the Preservation Society of Charleston to list the enclosure among its new “Seven to Save” list.

Bethany Cemetery is owned and run by St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, which is facing a more pressing capital need to strengthen its 19th-century sanctuary off Marion Square.

The society’s listing, which hopefully will attract support from outside the church for the ironwork restoration, is a godsend, says Kerry Koon, who chairs St. Matthew’s Bethany committee.

“They’re optimistic that there will be substantial community interest in helping us do this,” he says. “Getting the money is the hard part.”

The good news is that while wrought iron needs regular maintenance, it’s more durable than many other building materials. The ironwork enclosure hasn’t been maintained in the seven years since Ben Walpole started work as Bethany’s caretaker, but Walpole says it hasn’t changed much over that time.

“It’s in remarkably good shape after all these years with nothing ever being done to it,” he says.

Richard Guthrie, professor of forged architectural ironwork with the American College of the Building Arts, says the wrought iron used in the 19th century is tougher than the low-carbon steel most ironworkers use today.

“It really doesn’t rust away,” he says. “Once it gets the surface rust on it, it stabilizes.”

A larger problem may not be the exposed sections that have rust, but the buried sections where dirt obscures the iron and may not let it dry as quickly after a rain.

Guthrie says some of Charleston’s other ironwork that looks like it needs the most maintenance seems to have suffered some damage by fire.

That’s not the case with Bethany’s. Still, Koon and others would like to see the enclosure returned to its original glory, a project that might cost as little as $20,000, depending in part on whether the gates can be repaired in place or must be taken to a shop.

“There’s not a lot of visible rust,” Koon says “It’s not in danger of immediate harm, but still, it’s of historic and decorative value — and we want to get it done before it gets to that point.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.