Holy City landmarks get critical care

Tim Davis, a contractor with First Exteriors, removes waste from the interior of St. Matthew's Lutheran Church. The church has been undergoing extensive repairs which should be completed by late spring.

It's what can happen eventually to old church buildings: they fall apart.

Staff and worshippers at two churches on either side of Marion Square in downtown Charleston certainly can attest to this. The termite damage at Citadel Square Baptist Church was so bad that trusses in the ceiling were compromised and holes in the roof were letting water in. Engineers in early 2013 told the Rev. David Walker and his flock that they better get themselves out from under that threat, and quick.

Meanwhile, across the square, the people at St. Matthew's Lutheran Church were coping with their own structural challenges. They had wanted to do some work on their parish hall and called in an architect to check it out. To see the building from every angle, he looked down from atop the nearby Francis Marion Hotel. That's when he saw the tree growing from the roof of the sanctuary.

The St. Matthew's project got underway in 2012 with a preliminary budget of $6.2 million and a capital campaign that caused anxiety and hope to vie within the hearts of parishioners. Then matters got worse.

A big repair job was transformed into a rehabilitation and preservation project - and a four-month delay.

"Initially, we thought only 20 percent of the (exterior) stucco would need to be replaced," said Janelle Othersen, chairwoman of the church's building committee. "But then we discovered we needed much more. We ended up with a different project than we started out with."

They went back to the city's Board of Architectural Review to explain that not 20 percent, but 80 percent, of the stucco needed to be replaced. The BAR asked the church to hire a national conservator, and suddenly a complicated project got even more complicated.

"It was an education, it really was," Othersen said.

It also got more expensive. The cost estimate was revised to around $8 million. The capital fundraising campaign secured about $4 million from donors, and an endowment set up by a church member for use on sanctuary needs helped a lot, Othersen said. A big bank loan took care of the rest.

The scope of work "turned out to be more extensive than we initially thought," she said. "We found lots of thing along the way."

The steeple needed to be raised with a special jack because some of the fasteners were loose or bulging.

The flashing had to be redone on the roof and copper decking installed; the shingles needed replacing.

"These things you don't see from the ground, you don't see until you get up there," Othersen said.

A moisture-proof HVAC room had to be dug out beneath the church structure. The chancel organ will go in there, too.

And then there is all the plaster work, the duct and conduit installations, the landscaping.

The congregation had hoped to be back in the sanctuary by Easter, but a little more time is needed, Othersen said. Early June now is likely to provide a new milestone date in the life of this church, which was founded in 1868 in the embers of the Civil War. Hurricanes and earthquakes inflicted their wrath, but it was the great fire of 1965 that tore the building to pieces. Rebuilt quickly, it was damaged again by Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

During the current renovation project, the congregation has met in the auditorium of its parish building. When they return to the sanctuary it will be with singing and rejoicing.

"This has been a long hard project," Othersen said. "We want a long, celebratory service to rededicate the church."

On the other side of the square, worshippers at Citadel Square Baptist returned to their sanctuary Dec. 14 and now look forward to a construction-free 2015 and beyond. Their pastor, the Rev. David Walker, said he sees miracles at work.

It began with a budget estimate of close to $1 million - a huge sum for a small congregation. On any given Sunday, up to 75 fill the pews. This would have meant enormous sacrifice, Walker said.

Church members raised a little more than $300,000, and received another $100,000 from friends and outside donors.

"What was really cool was that God brought us the people who could work within the budget of our giving," Walker said.

He considers it miraculous that relatively few people were able to give so much, especially considering that when the capital fundraising campaign got started, the Great Recession was still being felt.

For nearly two years, the congregation worshipped in the adjacent chapel while workers hoisted steel beams (without the need for a large crane), slid them through holes made in the roof structure then installed each one by hand. No scaffolding went up; this was all done by hand and rope, Walker said.

None of this is about preservation, he said. Citadel Square adopted the slogan "Bridge to tomorrow: Restoration in view of transformation," and that says it all. "As we are transformed more like Jesus Christ and love our community and bless our community, (our sanctuary) will be a place people will want to come to find help and healing and spiritual guidance," Walker said.

The church, founded in 1854 in a location outside the city limits, originally was meant to minister to those with no regular church or with no easy access to a sanctuary.

"That same heart is within the church today," Walker said.

Citadel Square will join with First Baptist (its mother church) and Ashley River Church (its daughter church) for a special Epiphany service at 4 p.m. Jan. 4 in its now-fortified space. The service, free and open to the public, will feature the CSO Gospel Choir.

It will be a day to receive and bestow the gifts of fellowship, followed by a year of renewal.

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.