The Piercing Beauty of St. Philip’s Church

Visitors to Charleston naturally gravitate toward the majestic steeple of St. Philip’s Church, located at 146 Church Street, that seems to pierce the sky with its (leaning) point upward, making it one of the most recognizable sights in the Holy City. 
St. Philip’s Church was organized in 1680 as Charleston’s oldest Episcopal congregation and was the first Anglican church established south of Virginia. The first church building, a frame structure, was built c. 1681 on the present site of St. Michael’s Church at the corner of Broad and Meeting Streets. According to tradition, the first minister was accused, in 1682, of having christened a young bear while in an inebriated condition.
A second church was built in 1710-23 on this site. Constructed of brick, the new church had a tower centered in the street, in the manner of contemporary parish churches in England which were placed at the center crossroads. The church also had three Doric porticoes which represented the first documented use of giant order columns in the American colonies. The second St. Philip’s was described by a contemporary account as “spacious, and executed in a very handsome taste, exceeding everything of that kind which we have in America.” It was built with funds partly obtained from duties on rum, brandy, and slaves. The church caught fire during the great conflagration of 1796, but was saved by a black boatman who ripped the burning shingles from the roof; he was later given his freedom as a reward. The building then was burned to the ground by another fire in 1835.
After the 1835 fire, the city attempted to widen the street at the expense of the steeple and porticoes. The Vestry countered that a fine steeple was more ornamental than a mere street. A compromise was worked out whereby the church site was moved slightly to the east, but with the street continuing to curve around a projecting tower and steeple. The church was rebuilt in 1835-38. The Vestry had asked architect Joseph Hyde to rebuild it exactly as it had been; however, he persuaded them to permit the replacement of the massive Tuscan columns of the original interior design with lighter Corinthian columns after the style of St. Martins-in-the-Fields in London. The English Renaissance-style steeple, in the Wren-Gibb tradition, was designed by Edward Brickell White and built in 1848-50.
The church’s bells were donated to the Confederacy to be melted down as munitions during the Civil War. During the Federal bombardment of the city, the steeple was used for sighting and the church was extensively damaged. It was also severely damaged by the earthquake of 1886. The church was THEN damaged by a fire caused by lightning in 1924. Its restoration, executed by architects Albert Simons & Samuel Lapham in 1925, included extension of the chancel by 23 1/2 feet, providing space for a new organ and choir stalls. The new construction was placed over graves and tombstones so as not to disturb them.
Many famous persons have worshipped at St. Philip’s, including President George Washington on his state visit in 1791. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, preached here on his visit to America as a young man.
Many prominent persons are buried in the churchyard as well, which is divided into two parts by Church Street. The two yards contain the graves of John C. Calhoun, Vice President of the United States, Senator and cabinet officer; Rawlins Lowndes, President of South Carolina in 1778-79; Col. William Rhett, the scourge of the pirates; Maria Gracia Turnbull, South Carolina’s first know Greek resident; Edward Rutledge, signer of the Declaration of Independence and Governor of South Carolina; several colonial Governors; five Episcopal bishops; Edward McCrady, the South Carolina historian; and DuBose Heyward, author and playwright. Christopher Gadsen, the Patriot leader, is buried in the churchyard in an unmarked grave at his request, according to tradition.
An interesting pair of stones in the Western Churchyard are known as the ‘Footpad’s Memorial’ and recite the story of Nicholas John Wightman, age 25, who was murdered by a footpad (a thief who targets pedestrian victims) in 1788. His brother avenged his death rounding up the murderer and six accomplices, members of a gang who had “kept the inhabitants in constant alarm.”
The gates to the Western Churchyard, installed c. 1770, along with the iron gates of the Miles Brewton House on King Street, are believed to be the ONLY wrought iron gates surviving from the pre-Revolutionary period in Charleston. The fence and gates of the Eastern Churchyard date from 1826 and replaced a heavy brick wall and heavy iron gates with skulls and crossbones wrought in the ironwork. The iron ballustrade and portal gates set between the pillars at the west entrance to the church were possibly salvaged from the 1835 fire. In the northeast corner of the eastern churchyard is the old Greek Revival styled parish house.
To learn more about the “eternal” residents at St. Philip’s, book my Famous & Infamous Ladies of Charleston walking tour. 

Research provided by The City of Charleston Tour Guide Training Manual, compiled and edited by the Historic Charleston Foundation for the City of Charleston Office of Tourism, 2011

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