The majestic steeples and spires of Charleston SC Historic Churches are visible throughout the city and the reason Charleston is often called the "Holy City". Regardless of religious affiliation or denomination, these beautiful buildings inspire millions of visitors every year. When visiting Charleston, here are some of the Historic Churches that are worth seeing:
Bethel Methodist Church is an exceptional example of Greek Doric Temple architecture common to antebellum with an uncharacteristic steeply-pitched roof, the church is one of the best examples of Greek Doric temple architecture in the State. The steep pitch would have allowed rainwater to drain more quickly. The most prominent architectural feature is the massive hexastyle Doric portico, with simple pediment and entablature. Windows, chimneys, verandahs, and refined details, as well as the building's overall mass, materials, and craftsmanship are elegant and innovative. Bethel was the only Methodist Charleston SC Historic Church which remained open during the Civil War, and it survived the earthquake of 1886 intact. Although there have been interior alterations, the exterior has been well-preserved.
The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist is a magnificent structure built on the foundation of the 1854 cathedral that burned down in the Charleston Fire of 1861. The structure is of Connecticut tool-chiseled brownstone. Over each entrance are unique stained glass windows including the Papal coat of arms and the seal of the state of South Carolina. The pews are of carved Flemish oak, and the three original altars are of white Vermont marble.
In the nave are 14 large two-light windows, representing the Life of Christ from His Nativity to the Ascension. Above the high altar is a five-light window copied from Leonardo DaVinci's "Last Supper." The rose window above it is the Baptism of Jesus by St. John the Baptist. In the clerestory of the sanctuary are windows honoring the four evangelists.
The style of architecture is typical of the period, the interior being almost devoid of ornamentation with the exception of the chancel which, according to Dalcho the historian, is “richly painted, and ornamented with Corinthian pilasters having gilt capitals”. In touring the building, one will notice that a similar description applies today, as during the redecorating of the interior after the devastating hurricane of 1989, the colors and applications first used in 1815 were employed as much as current means allowed.<br>
The building was in continuous use during the War Between the States, harboring congregations from those churches nearer the strongholds of the Union forces, whose cannons bombarded the city constantly. The church’s bell was dismantled and sent to Columbia to be melted down in support of the Confederate cause.
For the most part, the interior must appear very much as it did in 1815, a major exception being that of the stained-glass windows added later. In addition, the box pews were replaced in 1872 and the pulpit was moved from the middle aisle to its present location.
Architecturally, Central Baptist is an excellent example of a vernacular Carpenter Gothic style church. Victorian era churches such as this are rare in Charleston, largely due to the prevalence of well constructed churches from earlier periods. Central Baptist's architectural features typical of this style include the detailed protective hood above the central double doors and Gothic windows with plate tracery. The original octagonal belfry tower topped with a dome was replaced by a square tower in the 1950s. The church's interior contains carved wooden details, a semicircular apse with Gothic arch, and the original galleries and pews.
The grounds of the church are open to the public during daylight hours 7 days a week.
The Circular Congregational Church, a National Historic Landmark, is one of the few examples in Charleston of the adaptation of the Romanesque style that was made popular by architect Henry Hobson Richardson. The Church is an excellent example of this architectural style in its massing, broad roof plane, ribbons of windows and openings, short tower, and large arched entry. The members of Circular Congregational Church are proud to be one of the oldest continuously worshiping congregations in the South. Charles Towne's original settlers founded this protestant, or dissenting, church about 1681.
The graveyard is the city's oldest burial grounds with monuments dating from 1695 and the first meeting house on this site gave Meeting Street its name. The third structure here, a vast, circular hall built in 1804, burned in 1861. Bricks from "Old Circular" were used in building the present sanctuary, completed in 1892.
The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church is a Gothic Revival style church built in 1891. Retaining its original alter, communion rail, pews, and light fixtures the church is one of only a few unaltered religious interiors in Charleston, especially from the Victorian period. The brick Gothic church with its tall steeple replaced an earlier 1872 church badly damaged by the 1886 earthquake. Today Emanuel is the oldest AME church in the South, and houses the oldest black congregation south of Baltimore, MD.
First Baptist Church, often referred to as the "Mother Church of Southern Baptists," is the oldest Baptist Church in the South. The church was designed by Robert Mills and dedicated in 1822. Robert Mills considered the First Baptist Church to be "the best specimen of correct taste in architecture of all the modern buildings in this city." Mills described the building as "purely Greek in its style," although it is more accurately described as a Georgian Composition. The trim Doric portico topped with triglyphed entablature and pediments are decidedly Greek in style, however, they are juxtaposed Roman arches and Tuscan columns.
First Scots Presbyterian Church, the fifth oldest church in Charleston, was constructed in 1814. Its design was perhaps inspired by St. Mary's Cathedral in Baltimore, Maryland designed by Benjamin Latrobe. Latrobe was the first professionally trained American architect, best known for designing the United States Capitol. The massive brick Presbyterian Church has walls that are three feet thick and covered with stucco. Twin towers rise above a columned portico. Reflecting the heritage of the congregation, the seal of the Church of Scotland is displayed in the stained glass window over the main entrance, and the decorative wrought iron grilles contain thistles, the symbol of Scotland. First Scots replaced the congregation's first church, a frame building previously located in the southeast corner of the graveyard. The graveyard contains more than 50 stones that date earlier than 1800.
The French Huguenot Church, a National Historic Landmark, is the third church to be constructed on this site. Completed in 1845, it was the first Gothic Revival building constructed in Charleston, and is an excellent example of the versatility of local architect Edward Brickell White. White had recently completed very different Greek and Roman Doric buildings in Charleston. The stucco over brick Huguenot church is ornamented with windows, buttresses, and decorative details typical of the Gothic Revival. The use of iron for many of these decorative details was unusual, but reflects the difficulty of obtaining carved stonework during the antebellum period in Charleston. Today it remains unaltered, even the clear glass windows are original.
On February 16, 1846, Grace Church was admitted to the Diocese of South Carolina. In 1848, the church was consecrated by Bishop Christopher Edward Gadsden. The contract for the church building was $16,200 without the steeple, but a provision was made to build the steeple for $3,000 additional "should the vestry determine to have one."
The Gothic sanctuary is rich in religious symbolism. The stained glass windows installed during the tenures of rectors Way and Meadowcroft are particularly meaningful. Most of the window designs were conceived by Meadowcroft and constructed and installed by Willett Studios of Philadelphia. Centerpieces are the altar window, which displays the sacraments of the church, and the great entrance window, which depicts the Great Commission by which Christ sends his followers into the world to spread the Gospel. The clerestory windows record twelve major events in the life of Christ and relate them to institutions in today's world.
Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue, a National Historic Landmark, is the country's second oldest synagogue and the oldest in continuous use. The American Reform Judaism movement originated at this site in 1824. The congregation of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim--meaning Holy Congregation House of God--was established in colonial Charleston in 1749, and is now the nation's fourth oldest Jewish community. The building reflects the history of Jewish worship in Charleston, as well as the high degree of religious tolerance within the Carolina colony.
St. John's Lutheran Church houses Charleston's oldest Lutheran congregation. Built from 1816 to 1818, the design of the church is attributed to well-known Charleston architect and church member Frederick Wesner. Numerous other Charleston craftsman and builders contributed to its design and construction. The rectangular, stuccoed brick building combines Federal and Baroque elements. The Italianate steeple with bell-shaped roof was not added until 1859, and was built by David Lopez, contractor for the Kadal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue. While it is not clear who designed the steeple, famous miniaturist and architect Charles Fraser submitted several steeple designs to the church prior to its construction. The church was damaged in the Charleston earthquake of 1886 and the 1891 hurricane, after which a recessed chancel with memorial windows was also added. The church also was damaged by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 but has been restored.
The congregation of St. Mary's was the first Roman Catholic Church in the Carolinas and Georgia. A sufficient number of Catholic immigrants had arrived in Charleston by the late 18th century, that Reverend Ryan, an Irish priest, was sent to the city in 1788. The Hasell Street site was purchased for the church by trustees one year later, and the congregation has worshiped here ever since. The congregation first worshiped in a dilapidated Methodist meeting house that was at the site. In 1801 the congregation constructed their own brick church. The Charleston fire of 1838 that burned much of the surrounding Ansonborough neighborhood also destroyed most of the Catholic Church. The present building was completed in 1839 in the Classical Revival style. Its monumental form, elements and ornamental details are adapted from classic Roman architecture with typical Classical details such as its arched openings and Tuscan portico with a parapet.
Patterned after typical German Gothic churches, St. Matthew's German Lutheran Church is a Gothic Revival church designed by local architect John Henry Deveraux and constructed between 1867 and 1872. An immigrant from Ireland, Deveraux became a noted architect in Charleston by the late 1860s. Its 297-foot steeple once made it the tallest building in South Carolina; it continues to possess the tallest spire. The congregation was founded originally by German-speaking Lutherans in 1840. Their first church was located at the corner of Hasell and Anson Streets, now St. Johannes's Lutheran church. As Charleston's German community grew quickly in the mid-19th century, so did the congregation, and the need for a larger church. Three thousand people gathered for the dedication ceremony of St. Matthew's in 1872.
In 1965, a fire destroyed much of the interior of the church and steeple, which crashed spectacularly into King Street. The damaged portions were carefully restored except for a finial on the steeple. The iron finial, designed by prominent Charleston ironworker Christopher Werner, was prohibitively expensive to replace at $500,000. The stained glass windows in the apse and under the balcony, as well as the pulpit, are original to the building. St. Matthew's is one of more than 1400 historically significant buildings within the Charleston Old and Historic District.
St. Michael's Episcopal Church, a National Historic Landmark, is one of the finest Colonial American churches in the country and the oldest church in Charleston. Although the architect is unknown, the church was built between 1752 and 1761 and resembles 18th-century English pattern book examples widely used throughout the colonies. It is similar in many respects to London's St. Martin-in-the-Fields, designed by James Gibbs. Prominent and elegant features of the two-story stuccoed brick church are its giant classical portico and a 186-foot high massively proportioned steeple. The history of the congregation of St. Michael's is rooted in that of St. Philip's Episcopal. The first St. Philip's church stood at this site from approximately 1681 to 1727. In 1751, the congregation divided, and the residents of the lower half of the city formed St. Michael's.
The Unitarian Church, a National Historic Landmark, is the oldest Unitarian church in the South. In colonial Charleston, members of the Circular Congregational Church (then known as the Independent Church) were so numerous the need arose to build a second church building. Construction began at this Archdale site in 1772, but was temporarily interrupted by the Revolutionary War. The small rectangular brick church was finally completed in 1787. In 1817, the Archdale congregation was chartered as the Second Independent Church, with a Unitarian minister presiding. As the American Unitarian Association was not organized until 1825, it was not until 1839 that this congregation was rechartered as Unitarian. The church received a major remodeling in the mid-19th century and is today a statement of the emotional mood of the era when the romantic and picturesque were dominant not only in literature but also in building design.
This popular non-denominational wedding location, located at the corner of Ashley Avenue and Bee Street, was originally part of a Federal arsenal built between 1825 and 1832 by the United States government. It was later obtained in 1879 by the Reverend Anthony Toomer Porter for the education of boys orphaned or left destitute by the Civil War. In 1883 Dr. Porter converted the artillery shed into a chapel. The building served Porter Academy students from 1883 to 1965.
The Medical College (now Medical University) of South Carolina took possession of the property at that time. The Chapel was rededicated on April 17, 1966, and renamed to honor the important biblical figure, St. Luke the Physician.
St. Philip's Episcopal Church, a National Historic Landmark, houses the oldest congregation in South Carolina and was the first Anglican church established south of Virginia. This church is the third building to house the congregation, which was formed by Charles Town colonists. The first church, built in 1681, was a small wooden building located at the present site of St. Michael's Episcopal Church. In the early 18th century, the congregation built a second brick church at the site of the current church. Its construction was partially funded by duties on rum and slaves. After suffering from one fire that was extinguished by a black slave, who was given his freedom for this act, the church completely burned in 1835. The current St. Philip's was constructed from 1835 to 1838 by architect Joseph Hyde, while the steeple, designed by E.B. White, was added a decade later.
Magnolia Cemetery is what Superintendent Beverly Donald calls "the best kept secret in Charleston." To get there, you must drive outside the historic district to an area known as the Charleston Neck. Once you pass the white pillars at the entrance of Magnolia Cemetery and head down its curvy drive, you, too, will be silenced by the quintessentially Southern majesty of this burial ground.
"Planters, politicians, military leaders, bootleggers, whorehouse madams - you name it, anybody from the last 150 years of Charleston's history is out there," says Ted Phillips, author of a soon-to-be published book on Magnolia, City of the Silent. Once a thriving 19th-century rice plantation, the 128-acre cemetery is what Phillips calls a "nice microcosm of Charleston history, of those who were rich and white, since 1850."