St. John the Baptist plan breezes past BAR
It seems that downtown Charleston's skyline soon will get its most welcome new addition in more than a century: a brand new church steeple.
In Charlestonians' hearts, if not necessarily always in their eyes, their historic city's skyline remains dominated by steeples, despite a handful of high rises, container cranes and, most recently, a new bridge.
So it's no wonder why plans to add a steeple to the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist breezed through the Board of Architectural Review so easily last week.
Architect Glenn Keyes actually was anticipating at least some nay-saying, if only because the Broad Street church has existed for a century in its current form.
The cathedral was begun in 1890, and it finally was consecrated in 1907. Patrick Keely, a prolific architect for the Catholic church, designed it to resemble the 1851 Cathedral of St. John the Baptist and St. Finbar, which burned in 1861 and whose ruins finally collapsed in the 1886 earthquake.
Preservationists have some intellectual ammo to oppose a steeple.
The U.S. Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Historic Preservation, standards that the city is considering adopting, say that "new additions, exterior alterations or related new construction will not destroy historic materials, features and spatial relationships that characterize the property. The new work shall be differentiated from the old."
Keyes' steeple essentially doubles the cathedral's height, which more than qualifies for altering its "spatial relationships." Also, its design won't be differentiated from the old church. On the contrary, most every detail will replicate something found elsewhere in and on the existing building.
The same standards also say that "a false sense of history will not be created by adding conjectural features," and this new steeple will be a bit conjectural.
Keely's original design anticipated a steeple being built one day, but his plans for it were never found, if they ever existed at all.
Keyes had to come up with the design from scratch, and that turned out to be a blessing, in a way.
The greatest design challenge wasn't battling nay-sayers who cited federal preservation standards. Instead, it was figuring out how a major new steeple could be built in a sympathetic way while meeting modern codes regarding hurricane-force winds.
Keyes' plan includes a large, open, arched section topped with a hollow 40-foot spire that will be built by cladding copper over a steel frame. The lattice-like spire will be a new look for Charleston, but it has historical precedent in European cities.
Had a steeple design by Keely been found, "chances are good it would not have been buildable," Keyes says.
While construction could begin in the middle of next year, the price tag for the project isn't known yet. It's more than safe to say the church will gladly accept donations.
In fact, the new steeple isn't the high-cost item in the upcoming work. About three-fourths of the cost will be associated with expert stone masons who will repair, retool or replace a few thousand separate pieces of brownstone.
The BAR also agreed to let them replace some projecting pieces of brownstone with similar-looking cast stone, a decision that emphasizes safety and longevity over historical integrity. Brownstone crumbles too easily.
While the stone repairs may be the substance of the cathedral's upcoming construction work, the steeple seems certain to be the talk of the town.
Jay Keenan with the church notes that people have written checks to build the steeple long before there was any credible plan to do so. "People have been interested in completing that steeple for many years — at least 50," he says.
So the BAR will not stand in the way, and not just because it's the mayor's church. "I think this is absolutely magnificent," architect and BAR member Chris Schmitt says. "This building is going to be better than ever because of this."