- St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Charleston, South Carolina St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Charleston, South Carolina (photo courtesy of Elisa Rolle)
The oldest congregation in South Carolina may not have the oldest church building, but they certainly have the most iconic. There may well be more photos and paintings featuring St. Philip’s Episcopal than there are of any other structure in Charleston. Built in 1835 by architect Joseph Hyde (steeple designed by E. B. White), St. Philip’s juts out into Church Street with its Tuscan porticoes and multi-tiered steeple, presenting an inescapable focal point for all in the vicinity. Unfortunately, this means it also became the chosen target for Union bombardment during the Civil War, but amazingly the building survives in pristine condition to the delight of Charlestonians and visitors alike.Church Street view of St. Philip’s in Charleston
- Downtown Presbyterian Church, Nashville, TennesseeDowntown Presbyterian Church, Nashville, Tennessee, interior
After having their building returned to them by the United States government following the Civil War, the Presbyterians of Nashville, Tennessee, got busy restoring and renovating the much-abused structure. Improvements of every kind were made, and even Belmont Mansion proprietor Adelicia Acklen got in on the action, donating a 4,000-pound bell. But apparently these efforts were just the warm-up. In a very literal spirit of “plundering the Egyptians,” the Downtown Presbyterian Church of Nashville decided in 1882 to do the unthinkable and decorate the interior of their Christian sanctuary after the fashion of an ancient Egyptian temple. Six massive columns line the front of the auditorium, backed by perspective painting on the wall behind to provide the illusion of an even greater hall, and Egyptian symbols, color, and design characterize the entire church. The effect is stunning, and the church remains to this day one of the best examples of Egyptian Revival architecture in the nation.
- San Fernando Cathedral, San Antonio, Texas Cathedral of San Fernando, San Antonio, Texas
At 260 years old in 2015, San Antonio’s Cathedral of San Fernando is the oldest church building in Texas and undeniably one of the most beautiful. It has not only seen a lot of history but has been at the center of it: James Bowie was married here; the Mexican army flew the red flag of “no quarter” from its roof during the siege of the Alamo; and Texans flew their own flag of victory from its ramparts not long afterwards. Being the centerpiece of such history-making took its toll. By the mid-1800’s the cathedral was in need of repair and renovation and got it under the direction of architect Francois P. Giraud. Gothic revival elements were introduced, three new entrance portals, twin bell towers, and buttresses as well. Another major restoration one hundred years later has the busy cathedral (400 baptisms annually!) looking and feeling better than ever as it continues to serve the San Antonio area at its very center. San Antonio’s San Fernando Cathedral from the rear, displaying buttresses to the left (photo courtesy of Cornell Prodan)
- St. Andrew’s Catholic Church, Roanoke, Virginia St. Andrew’s Catholic Church, Roanoke, Virginia (photo courtesy of Joe Ravi)
With Protestantism deeply entrenched in Virginia, Catholicism did not arrive in Roanoke until 1882 when circuit-riding Father John Lynch said the city’s first mass in Passenger Coach No. 6 of the new Shenandoah Valley Railroad. Only twenty years later, however, in 1902, the Catholics made up for their late show by building on a high hill in the center of town a monumental Gothic structure that rivals the finest in the country. Twin spires pierce the skyline, while thirty-foot-tall stained glass windows, featuring St. Andrew and St. Patrick respectively, grace the interior. Some have said the church reminds them of the French cathedrals of Rouen and Chartres in miniature.St. Andrew’s is one of the tallest structures in Roanoke
- St. Peter’s Catholic Church, Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia St. Peter’s Catholic Church, Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia (photo courtesy of John Picken)
The original St. Peter’s church built literally “upon this rock” in Harper’s Ferry was “a pretty little church,” according to its first priest, who incidentally interviewed John Brown just before his execution and almost single-handedly preserved the church from destruction during the War. Despite his efforts, however, by end of century the original church was replaced by the current structure—every bit as pretty if not marvelously surpassing. Designed in the neo-Gothic style of the time, the church wears bold granite walls with red sandstone trim, its corner bell tower replacing the one-time smaller central steeple. Set high on a promontory above Lower Town Harper’s Ferry and surrounded by some of the most astounding natural scenery in the country, St. Peter’s has long been a source of inspiration and admiration to natives and visitors alike. St. Peter’s, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, interior St. Peter’s as seen from Lower Town Harpers Ferry (photo courtesy of Joy Schoenberger)
16 of the South’s Most Beautiful Churches: Part Three
by Bill Izard
Charleston, SC; Nashville, TN; San Antonio, TX; Roanoke, VA; Harper’s Ferry, WV
Bill Izard resides in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is managing editor for PorterBriggs.com. He's lived in the South fifty of his fifty-three years (he got lost in Cincinnati for three years one time) and loves early morning mountain climbs, river valley sunrises, and a good story to chew on any time day or night.
Read more stories by Bill Izard
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