MR. GILMAN’S GOTHIC CHURCH
In his 2003 double volume, one of text, the other full of absorbing historical photographs and drawings, Architecture of Charleston, 1670-1860, Gene Waddell, Archivist at the College of Charleston, devotes six pages to the 19th century architectural firm of Jones and Lee. Because the design was his and he was responsible for the Gothic remodeling of our Unitarian Church between 1852 and 1854, and we are very familiar with Francis D. Lee. However, we tend to overlook the role that Edward C. Jones played in that transformation and in the life and career of Francis Lee.
Jones was born in 1822 and, realizing at an early age his desire to become an architect, went to work for builders James Curtis and David Lopez when he was 16, gaining the first hand knowledge of construction technique on which he founded a future architectural practice. As for formal training, he learned the art of drafting from a Professor Guthrie, College of Charleston; he also made use of design books at the Apprentices’ Library Society, the largest architectural library in South Carolina, to acquire knowledge of world architectonics. Eleven years later, at age 26, he began his career as an independent architect, when in 1847 he was commissioned to draw plans for the Glebe Street Presbyterian Church (now the Mt. Zion A.M.E. Church at 7 Glebe St.) in the fashion of John Soane. Waddell says, he “demonstrated a mastery of (Soane’s) idiosyncratic style” and “(s)ince there were no equivalent examples of Soane’s work in Charleston, Jones was clearly studying books with great care.”
In 1848, the following announcement appeared in the Courier: “EDWARD C. JONES, ARCHITECT, 63 Broad-Street; Office Hours 9 to .” That year Jones helped organize the South Carolina Institute, an association established to promote “local arts and industries”, becoming its secretary. Construction also got started that year on his Central Presbyterian Church (today’s Trinity United Methodist Church at 273 Meeting St.) and by 1849 success had come to such an extent that he hired two architectural students. One of them was Louis J. Barbot who went on to become a principle in Charleston’s only other (than Jones and Lee) pre-Civil War architectural partnership.
The other architectural student was Francis D. Lee. Lee was born in 1826 in Charleston and attended the College of Charleston (whose records show his middle name was “Dee”), winning a Gold Medal for a speech entitled Imagination in 1845, graduating in 1846, and earning a master’s degree in 1848. The next year he “joined the short-lived South Carolina Lyceum, a group which heard lectures on scientific discoveries, his name coming last on a list of curators. He was later to join the Scottish Rites Masons and the South Carolina Society…and to be recording secretary of the Carolina Art Association…Lee taught at Mr. Satcheben’s School in 1848 and ’49…” according to Beatrice St. Julien Ravenel in Architects of Charleston written in 1992. He also earned a silver medal at the South Carolina Institute Fair for the best architectural drawing (subject unknown). Lee was a member of the Unitarian Church in Charleston.
In 1849, Lee became apprenticed to the older (but by only four years) Jones. Gene Waddell writes that “(h)is training in the practice of architecture was probably obtained largely while working for Jones from 1849-1850 and later from working with him.” In 1850, a 24 year old Lee evidently thought he had absorbed enough schooling to set up his own independent practice, opening an office on Broad St. near that of his former mentor. However, by 1852, a year and one-half later, when he was awarded the contract for the redesign of our Unitarian Church, he had received but one other commission, the “pinnacled Elbert P. Jones marble monument…at Magnolia Cemetery,” according to Ravenel.
The Evening News, March 6, 1852, enthuses about Lee’s project: “The entire building is to be remodeled or in fact almost entirely rebuilt upon the present walls and foundations. Mr. Lee’s plan has been accepted by the Church. Its style is known as the perpendicular Gothic. The ceilings will be groined and beautifully ornamented with fan tracery.”
According to E.C. L. Browne, our minister from 1875-89, in his "Historical Sketch of the Unitarian Church", written for the Yearbook of the City, 1882, reports, “In 1852, when repairs somewhat extensive had become necessary, a proposition came from the younger members of the congregation that the edifice should be entirely remodeled and modernized. The cordial reception of this proposition seemed to warrant the undertaking, and plans were sought. The late Wm. Thompson, both architect and builder, submitted a plan…(but) the plan finally accepted was one offered by young F. D. Lee, also a church member, who was then establishing himself in the city as an architect.” Samuel Gilman, himself, was an inspiration for rebuilding of the church on its existing walls and foundation. On April 4, 1852, only 65 years after its original dedication, he preached in his farewell sermon that the church needed to undergo total transformation: “The very spirit of the age urged upon us a reconstruction of a more impressive and imposing character – we felt ashamed that our houses and equipages (carriages), and banks, and civic halls, should throw the church of our God into the shade…we are sustained by the unavoidable conviction, that old things MUST pass away.” He recalled, “The appearance of this building, on my earliest connection with it, (i.e. 1819) was that of a plain brick structure. It has been twice covered with plaster (stucco), and two or three times subjected to large and costly repairs,” later noting that “(b)y a vote of the corporation…the walls of the church were to be retained in the construction of the new edifice,” and the church was closed for two years to complete the project.
Three months later, on July 1st, Edward C. Jones and Francis D. Lee announced the formation of their architectural partnership. Kenneth Severens, in Charleston Antebellum Architecture and Civic Destiny, 1988, speculates on the meaning of such a partnership at this juncture: the Unitarian Church “proved easier to conceive than to execute.” Lee had little experience with buildings of this complexity; his “background was primarily academic…indeed, the partnership of Jones and Lee may have grown out of the early technical problems encountered. The decision to retain the walls of the existing church required constructional and structural expertise that Lee had not acquired, and the Perpendicular Gothic ornament was more complicated than that of any previous Charleston church…Jones’s more established office could provide those practical elements (that Lee could not) – working drawings, specifications, and supervision – that would turn Gilman’s and Lee’s visionary concept into reality.”
This all begs the question: “How did our 1852 architects get their professional knowledge?” Benjamin Latrobe, an English immigrant called the first Professional Architect in the U.S., was appointed by his friend Thomas Jefferson (merely a “Gentleman” Architect) as Surveyor of Public Buildings in the United States. In an early 1800s letter to his protégé, Robert Mills of Charleston, known himself as the first native-born Professional Architect, Latrobe writes, “The profession of architecture has been hitherto in the hands of two sets of Men. The first of those, who from traveling or from books have acquired some knowledge of the Theory of the art, but know nothing of its practice, the second of those know nothing but the practice, and whose early life being spent in labor (in some building trade) and in the habits of a laborious life, have had no opportunity of acquiring the theory.” As for our architects, members of the next generation from Latrobe, nowhere is it said that they traveled abroad. Edward C. Jones appears to bridge both of Latrobe’s categories, as mentioned, he went to work for builders at age16 where he learned construction technique first hand; for “book learning,” he studied drafting at the College of Charleston and was known as an avid architectural reader at the Apprentices’ Library Society. Francis D. Lee, on the other hand, after earning non-architectural bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the College of Charleston, apprenticed to his future partner, but for only about one year before establishing his own practice. Although he won awards for architectural drawing, it has been suggested that his joint venture with Jones was partially necessitated by his engineering naiveté. He apparently fits into Latrobe’s former category.
With the completion of the renovation, an extract from the Charleston Courier’s April 3, 1854 issue “reviews” the new building, stating, “the venerable old building…so well known for its quaint and somber appearance, furnished the basis for the present structure…(and) was adopted as the basis of the present elegant and commodious edifice. This retention, as far as possible, of the old structure, was due to a natural regard and respect for time-honored associations, rather than to any considerations of mere economy, for the cost of an entirely new edifice would scarcely have exceeded the repairs introduced and perfected, augmented as these have been by the difficulties surmounted by perforating the faithful old masonry to admit the new and lofty windows, and of (en)compassing the massive tower to build one far more lofty and imposing. The original structure was so nearly square, and was accordingly not well adapted to the Gothic style” that the chancel was added with its dramatic window to enhance the appearance of length.
The report continues, “A regard to full accommodations also rendered it necessary to retain the side galleries, an appendage which is rarely found in Gothic edifices, and which is difficult to reconcile with the purity and harmony of that order.” So, our architects didn’t preserve them. Despite opposing contentions, the side galleries of the original building were apparently dismantled in the renovations. Since the roof of the original building was constructed utilizing wooden trusses, it was entirely capable of being free of supporting posts. Nevertheless, the nave piers in the reconstructed church were made of large wooden posts (not cast iron as has been suggested) which have been erroneously cited as needed props for balconies. Gene Waddell, however, affirms they “were purely for visual effect and were no more necessary than the lathe and plaster vaulting.” One proof lies in a photograph from his book, Architecture of Charleston (2003) showing the church’s littered interior after the 1886 earthquake, but also revealing both side walls free of any galleries at all – yet absolutely unscathed by their supposed collapse.
The Charleston Courier further discusses the transformation of the interior from a relatively nondescript auditorium into one which, our Docents know, continues to inspire remarks of awe and wonder from visitors today. “The most striking feature of the interior is the ceiling of the nave, being, it is believed, the only work of its kind in this country (although Kenneth Severens cites St. Joseph’s Church [built 1847-52] in New Orleans as the first of its kind). It is of that peculiar Gothic work styled ‘fan tracery’ (ribbed vaulting of an arched ceiling which resembles a folding fan); the delicate enrichments, the almost numberless arches (of the vault ribs) intersecting each other in every direction, the gracefully falling pendants (the five large hanging adornments in the ceiling), all filled with the richest tracery (the patterns of interlacing ornamental work in the vaults, walls, columns, windows and the woodwork), give to the whole an exceeding gorgeous appearance, not easily appreciated by description. The groins of the ceiling (the curved intersection of two vaults) are supported by shafts attached to the massive columns which rise from the floor to the ceiling. Between these columns are flat arches, the spandrels (the roughly triangular space between two adjacent arches) of which are filled with cusped (cusps are the elongated triangular shapes projecting from the inner curve of an arch which creates a scalloped effect) work….” These terms apply to churches of the English Perpendicular or Tudor style of architecture from the 14th-16th centuries, the style which Francis Lee echoed. These medieval churches were constructed principally of stone and the fans actually held up the roof. Of course, in our church a large part of the interior decoration is constructed of lath (thin strips of wood) and plaster (applied over the wood), although Frank Palmer reports that some of that decoration is forged from cast iron, especially the smaller, more intricate details in the fans, in the pendants, and in the capitals (tops of columns). None of it is stone, however, and the fans are actually suspended from the roof and the roof trusses above.
The specific inspiration for Lee’s design has been a matter of conjecture for years. E.C.L. Browne says that Francis Lee’s “plan was modeled on the Chapel of Edward VI in Westminster” (Abbey). Gene Waddell clarifies this, saying that Edward VI is really buried in Westminster’s Chapel of Henry VII, his grandfather. Back in 1854, the Charleston Standard erroneously noted the source of the vaulting as the Chapel of Henry VIII at Westminster. To further the confusion, Henry VIII is actually buried in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle and there is no Chapel of Henry VIII at Westminster. Traditionally, our Docents have been using this background as the source, saying something to the effect that our ceiling is patterned after the Henry VII Chapel and/or St. George’s. Waddell writes “(t)here are some similarities, but major differences” between those two structures and the Unitarian Church. However, “(t)he most direct source for the Unitarian Church appears to have been Thomas Hopper’s Conservatory for Carlton House, London,” a 19th century building dating from 1807. He concludes, “In turn, Hopper’s nave closely followed the vaulting of…King’s College Chapel, Cambridge ([built] 1445-1514)” although Waddell does give Lee this credit for originality: “The panels for the vaulting appear to be Lee’s own design,” and they are what cause those gasps of awe.
Comparing images of these ceilings as reproduced in Waddell’s book or downloaded from the Internet, there is no question that certain elements in the ceiling of the Henry VII Chapel are repeated in our ceiling. The pendants, especially, are similar. However the fans themselves are not at all alike, with Henry VII ribbing being much more delicate, convoluted and complex than the straightforward, bold ribs in Charleston which force your eye heavenward, just what the Gothic builders were trying to accomplish. Furthermore, Carlton House, King’s College, St George’s and Charleston Unitarian all have a single row of large pendants prominently marching down the center of the ceiling, as opposed to Henry VII which has three rows, two large rows flanking one small one. This plus the fact that the Henry VII fans have a structural member, reminiscent of a flying buttress, arching from the side walls to the center of each large pendant makes the overall look of the ceiling entirely different from Charleston’s. Clearly the pictures show why Waddell selects the Carlton House Conservatory, a Gothic Revival building dated 1807, as Lee’s model, although nowhere is it definitively said that it was Lee’s choice.
Continuing to quote from the 1854 Charleston Courier’s description of our newly remodeled church, “The most remarkable feature in the exterior of the building is the tower, (remember that the new tower was considerably taller and more imposing than the original low tower which had given the building a unappealing, squat appearance) through the base of which is the principle entrance to the church. The form of it (that is, its cross-section) is square with eight buttresses (this was for effect only as they buttressed nothing; furthermore, as we ironically found in our recent remodeling, the buttresses had progressively been detaching themselves from the church and becoming a danger, a problem now fixed) “rising in successive stages, paneled and surmounted with pinnacles richly crotcheted (in the modern spelling, crockets are three-dimensional carved images of leaf/foliage stems projecting from medieval spires, pinnacles, gables, etc. common in Gothic architecture). Over the tower entrance is a spacious window, opening on the choir loft, the head of which is filled with elaborate tracery, in which is set the richest stained glass (That stained glass was replaced with clear glass in a repair effort after 20th century hurricanes). Above this window, in the third stage of the tower, are four square tower lights, filled with rich cusped tracery work (Also replaced with clear glass. Above these are four pointed windows with decorated heads. All the windows are finished with moulded hoods; (the one) over the doorway is elaborately crotcheted. The summit of the tower is embattled;” (embattlements are the saw-toothed parapets at the top of defensive walls and towers in medieval buildings) “every portion is here filled with cusped panels, which give it an exceedingly rich appearance. At the four angles of the summit rise lofty pinnacles crowned with enriched crotchets and finials (a finial is the top or finishing stone of a pinnacle); each finial bears a vane in the shape of a pennant, a form frequently used in English churches of this period.” Remember, though, you must read this description with a photograph taken of the 1852-54 remodeling before the earthquake of 1886 demolished much of this decoration, which was never replaced. (But the pennants are still flying!)
And, finally, from the Charleston Courier’s April, 1854 description: “An addition has been made to the rear of the church for a pulpit recess. A lofty archway opens into it, the splayed jambs (splayed openings have casings which angle outward to affect an enlarged appearance) of which are filled with Gothic tracery. In the rear of this recess is the great east window…in the richest style of design and finish…filled with figures of emblematic character. The ceiling over this portion of the church is in the richest style of ‘fan tracery’ with one central pendant. An arch, nearly similar to that over the pulpit, opens over the organ loft; where a new and valuable organ, now being built, similar in style to the building, will soon be placed (Samuel Gilman informs us that this organ was funded by the Ladies’ Working Society, forerunner of the Alliance). Beneath the organ gallery a handsomely carved screen work separates the body of the church from the entrance in the base of the tower. The last is paved with encaustic tiles (tiles colored with clay pigments) of the most appropriate pattern. The furniture of the church is all in conformity with the finish. The pulpit is in solid walnut of the richest design; the pews, gallery rail, &c., are capped with the same wood. The pews will present all the modern advantages and improvements. The church is lit with gas. The interior is finished throughout in imitation of stone….the Unitarian Church (is) a monument of the taste and skill of its designers.” Kenneth Severens comments in Charleston Antebellum Architecture and Civic Destiny that, “The original colors of the fan and pendant vaults were dark and somber to unify the Victorian interior.” E.C.L. Browne says the estimated cost for the project was $21,000; as built it reached $35,000 ($763,000 today), including the new organ and furnishings.
The Charleston earthquake of 1886 is estimated at 7.3 on the Richter scale (San Francisco in 1906 was 8.25). It cleaned the enlarged tower top, only 32 years old, of its pinnacles, spires, crockets and finials. These destroyed decorative elements were propelled down through the roof, leaving a gaping hole and a pile of rubble in the sanctuary below. Dr. A. B. Rose, vestry chair at the time, reported, “The destruction was so complete that a feeling of despair and utter hopelessness over shadowed the entire congregation.” In A Historical Sketch of the Charleston Unitarian Church, our minister in 1900, H.A. Whitman, offers a more optimistic view: “But even then the congregation did not altogether despair.” He goes on to leave one of the best anecdotes in neighborly lore. “Augustus Harleston, the church gardener, an ex-slave of Governor Pickens and a member of the congregation, expressed what was probably the feeling of many. The next morning after the earthquake, while mournfully contemplating the ruins, he was accosted by the sexton of St. John’s Lutheran Church next door, which was comparatively uninjured, who said, ‘Well, Harleston, you folks can’t be right, or else the Lord wouldn’t have destroyed your church.’ Augustus replied (dialect by Whitman), ‘You forgit what de good book say. It say, dat judgment must begin at de house of God; and if it begin fust at us, what shall be de end of dem dat obey not de gospel of God? No, de Lord aint gwineter desert his people. He is jess a trying der faith.’”
Making Harleston a true prophet, the national Unitarians were just then meeting in New York State. Whitman continues, “As soon as the news of what had befallen the church became known, there was a generous outpouring of Unitarian money from all parts of the country. Before the vibrations of the earthquake had subsided, there came flashing along the (telegraph) wires the question, ‘What are the estimated damages to the Charleston church? The Conference of Unitarian churches assembled in Saratoga ask the question.’ Subscription lists were opened, and in a short while a sum aggregating nearly $14,000 ($290,000 today) was contributed.” Robert P. Stockton, who wrote on the Charleston earthquake in The Great Shock, (1986), says we received $17,000 ($352,000) in total relief funds.
Thomas W. Silloway, a Boston architect and Universalist minister, who remodeled the Vermont State Capital after a fire, came south in the earthquake’s aftermath to do the same for several of Charleston’s churches, including the Citadel Square Baptist Church, St. Matthews German Lutheran Church, the French Huguenot Church and the Unitarian Church. Stockton reports, “Silloway…replicated the original design of the fan vaulting and pendants …‘with scrupulous exactness.’” The exterior “was preserved except in the case of the tower, the top of which was rebuilt less elaborately…high pinnacles and parapet(s)…were lowered and simplified…to minimize elements” which might again be damaged in another quake. The bold embattlements extending across the north and south roof edges and the pinnacles mounted atop each buttress on the side walls were also completely eliminated. “Silloway apologized for the changes, maintaining that they were in ‘strict keeping’ with the existing architecture and were made ‘simply to give a greater stability to the work.’ Dr. Rose said that such changes which the vestry agreed ‘would add to the strength without marring the general effect,’ were adopted (asserting) ‘we believe the church building to be now in better condition than it has ever been since its erection.’” Silloway’s fee was 5% of the $13,000 ($269,000 today) cost of renovations, or $650 ($3,500), returning $50 ($1,035) of it as a donation.
From The Gateway, 2004-05, Dave Elder, Docent