The Elusive Spire: The Cathedrals of Saint John the Baptist and Saint Finbar

by Ralph Muldrow, appearing in Volume 15

The golden glow of late-day sunlight bathes the hand-carved stars on the ruddy brownstone ashlar of Saint John the Baptist Cathedral in Charleston, SC. The astral allusions merge with the robust pinnacles lining the sides of this fine cathedral, designed by the prolific nineteenth-century church architect Patrick Keely. As the pinnacles and buttresses march down the side of the church, we come to Broad Street, where there is space enough to stand back and view the tower of the church, which climbs to a great height—over eighty feet—and yet still longs to regain much more height.

An earlier church on the site was called the Cathedral of St Finbar, named for an Irish Saint who was the son of an artisan father and a lady of the Royal Irish court. While living in a monastery in Kilkenny, he was given the name Fionnbharr, meaning “white head,” because of his light-colored hair. He became the founder of an abbey that became the City of Cork, Ireland. The Right Reverend John England was consecrated in Cork Cathedral and in 1821 came to Charleston to serve the diocese of the Carolinas and Georgia; he probably brought the idea of honoring Saint Finbar with him.

A lack of funds caused the spire atop the entry tower to be deleted from construction. Photo: Author

Patrick Keely, born in 1816 in County Tipperary, Ireland, immigrated to the United States in 1842 and quickly became one of the major architects of Catholic churches in America. He followed in the footsteps of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, author of Contrasts, or a Parallel Between the Noble Edifices of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, and similar Buildings of the Present Day, Showing the Present Decay of Taste (1836) and True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture (1841). Pugin was swimming against the tide of industrialization with his zeal for Gothic architecture as an iconic connection to a better, more graceful time and much more appropriate for a Christian nation.

Bishop England purchased the site of a much-loved garden in Charleston called “New Vauxhall” and built a wooden structure there to house the church during the planning and fundraising for a grand cathedral. Bishop England did not live to see his hopes come to fruition. Patrick Keely was entrusted with the design of the cathedral, then called the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist and Saint Finbar. Bishop England was succeeded in 1844 by the Right Reverend Ignatius Reynolds, who built a brownstone church. The cathedral was completed in 1854, and it was designed by Keely. Sadly, the cathedral only survived a few years before being ruined in the great Charleston fire of 1861; the Civil War and its aftermath caused the ruin of the cathedral to stand for decades. The ruined church had a very tall spire before the great fire. The church stood as a ruin until the great earthquake of 1886 toppled the remains of the tower.

Prior attempts to finish the tower have gone awry, including an impressive spire design by one of Charleston’s best-known architects, Albert Simons, in the 1930s. Image: Author

A new cathedral was begun in 1890, again by Keely, but it took until 1907 to complete the much anticipated church. Like its predecessor, this new building was clad in brownstone from Connecticut. A lack of funds, however, caused the spire atop the entry tower to be deleted from construction. Yet the cathedral was not unassuming—the interior was built with Portland freestone and the precedent for the stylistic details was fourteenth-century English Gothic, known as “decorative Gothic.” The existing truncated entry tower is over eighty feet tall.

Keely designed over six hundred churches during his career and over twenty cathedrals. This one, like numerous other examples, had to forego the spire designed by Keely as a cost-saving measure; drawings for his design have not been found. But very recently, there has been an initiative by the church to raise funds, including targeted funds “to build the steeple.” The Charleston firm of Glenn Keyes Architects has designed a fine eighty-five-foot-high spire that will meet relevant modern codes. Prior attempts have gone awry, including an impressive spire design by one of Charleston’s best-known architects, Albert Simons, in the 1930s. Now that the church has managed to raise the funds, the design must take into account current codes and requirements, as well as the less than optimum soil-bearing capacity.

The firm of Glenn Keyes Architect, with engineering consulting by John Moore of 4SE engineers, has created a filigree-like structure that is built with a core structure made of steel, with engineered laminated plywood forms and copper cladding. The result is in keeping with the tradition of the spire while meeting the required 135 mile-per-hour wind resistance, as well as maintaining a strong connection to the existing tower. This structure is designed to be much lighter in weight than a stone spire would have been.

The new steeple will be fabricated off site in several pieces using lightweight epoxied wood inspired by shipbuilding technology. The new spire will double the height of the church to 166 feet and place it in a league with other tall churches such as Saint Michael’s, adding another spire to the skyline of the “Holy City,” as Charleston is nicknamed. The design was presented to the City of Charleston Board of Architectural Review and was well received.

The spire will cap the church’s capital campaign, which has already included restoration of the stained-glass windows and has had ongoing restoration of its brownstone cladding. The brownstone was completely repointed and failing areas were treated individually. Brownstone expert Ivan Mijer consulted on the restoration. The brownstone cladding is six inches deep over brick masonry, and some pieces are delaminating, as brownstone is apt to do. Replacement or repairs are being made, depending on the situation. Jahn patching mortars are being used in some areas, whereas Dutchman replacements are called for in other areas. Where the brownstone is in tension, pigmented cast stone is being used.

The proudest restoration element will be the spire, not seen in over a hundred years. The innovative approach of Glenn Keyes and his design team will allow for the much hoped for, but quite elusive, spire for the Cathedral of John the Baptist.