From Steeples to Steeplechase

Could a city be more fittingly nicknamed than the Holy City? Its tableau is dotted with 400 houses of worship, many with steeples stretching into the sky.

Perhaps it’s apt, then, that Charleston boasts its own steeplechase competition. The obstacle-course event traces its roots to Irish races from one town’s steeples to another, forcing riders and their horses to jump streams and stone walls separating estates along the way.

Symbolically, steeples extend their church’s reach towards heaven and God’s Kingdom, but in Charleston, they served a more prosaic purpose for years as the statutory height limit for all buildings. The rules have loosened over the decades, but the domination of steeples on the Charleston skyline remains intact. Five of Charleston’s six tallest buildings feature steeples (the other being Dockside Condominium just south of the Aquarium), with St. Matthew’s Lutheran the tallest at 255 feet. Citadel Baptist, St. Philip’s, St. Michael’s Episcopal and the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist round out the list.

Charleston’s steeples have served other practical purposes over its four centuries, according to a 2020 report in Charleston magazine. From its construction in 1761, the spire of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church at the iconic Four Corners of Law provided daytime navigation for ships entering the Charleston Harbor. Historic St. Philip’s Church on Church St. added a beacon to its steeple in 1848, 12 years after its debut. That beam guided sailors at night for a century and a half until its retirement in 1915.

During the Revolutionary War, patriots climbed St. Michael’s 186-foot brick and stucco belfry – the shuttered section that houses bells – to warn of British naval incursions.

The bells at St. Michael’s also kept Charleston’s official time for nearly 200 years, before it could be ascertained by a phone call or Internet search. From 1764 until 1946, the bells’ reliable quarter-hour chiming indicated to residents the march of time.

The strength and direction of the wind are important in a maritime city, and Charleston is no exception. On various Charleston steeples spin the weathervanes that offered sailors a glimpse of conditions for harbor access and egress. Perhaps the most prominent among them sits atop First (Scots) Presbyterian Church on Meeting St.

Charleston’s churches, and by extension its steeples, have been buffeted over the centuries by war, fire, earthquake and hurricanes. Numerous church steeples bent in the winds of Hurricane Hugo’s devastating path through the area in 1989. Like many of its brethren, Blessed Sacrament Church in West Ashley lost two spires to the storm and lacked the funds to replace them for 28 years. An anonymous donor contributed $160,000 in 2017, sparking the construction of bronze-colored fiberglass replicas, crowned by a cross, of course.

Most of the early steeples reflect the Georgian Palladian architecture style prominent in Britain from Colonial days until just before the Civil War. This style is characterized by its proportion and balance, with grand features such as high porticos with roman style pillars The very early churches eschewed steeples altogether, “more a tribute to the Lords Proprietors’ guarantee of liberty of conscience than to the architectural aspirations of their congregations,” writes Robert P. Stockton, adjunct professor of history at the College of Charleston in a review for the National Park Service. But steeples became a staple of church architecture quickly as the city’s wealth grew.

Little could any of Charleston’s original settlers have known that the steeples that beckoned a deity and told time would also spur a horse race 18 miles away on the Stono River.