Spiritual Fabrics
in the Holy City

Nathaniel Robert Walker
Associate Professor of Architectural History, College of Charleston | 2022

For this program feature, FSA invites Professor Nathaniel Walker to reflect on the development of the spiritual cityscape of Charleston, South Carolina. Known as the “Holy City,” Charleston preserves one of the most intact and historic urban cores in the United States, and is the site of FSA’s residency program. Walker was co-curator of The City Luminous: Architectures of Hope in an Age of Fear at the City Gallery in Charleston (2019), an exhibition that offered a vision for the future in light of a reexamination of the city’s historical context and built environment.

 

Art has many purposes. One of its most important, perhaps, is to make visible the invisible—to make perceptible and tangible things which are real and true, but which are difficult for people to perceive or to understand without a visual manifestation. A painting, sculpture, or photograph can reveal hidden truths or capture fleeting ones, but this revelatory process can also occur on the scale of a building, a street, or even an entire neighborhood, city, or landscape.

Charleston is one of those rare and powerful places that physically embodies and visually renders the complex layers of time that connect citizens to their ancestors and to one another. These historically constituted spiritual fabrics are certainly present in many other American places, but they are often much harder to see and to touch, and therefore they are more difficult to know and to feel. Old cities like New York or Richmond often offer historic architecture only in fragments, but Charleston offers remarkably intact streetscapes and neighborhoods where one is truly immersed in an environment that has been shared by generations.

This is no accident. From the 1920s onwards, trailblazing historic preservationists like Susan Pringle Frost went beyond saving specific landmarks or monuments to maintaining large swathes of urban fabric, prizing the small and the intimate as much as the grand and impressive. This is because she, together with countless other citizens during and after her time, cherished that fabric for the relationships it represents and enables:

This is no accident. From the 1920s onwards, trailblazing historic preservationists like Susan Pringle Frost went beyond saving specific landmarks or monuments to maintaining large swathes of urban fabric, prizing the small and the intimate as much as the grand and impressive. This is because she, together with countless other citizens during and after her time, cherished that fabric for the relationships it represents and enables:

“Her…love for the old city…[was] not only for its buildings, and streets, and vistas, but also for those men and women she had known, or of whom she had been told, who dwelt here, and created, through a period of many generations, the town wherein she herself was privileged to dwell. Although with the passage of years, she developed a deep appreciation for the form and texture of the buildings which surrounded her, she never lost this personal feeling for the spirit, as much as the body, of Charleston.”

Among the vistas long prized by Charlestonians is the broad, shimmering plane where the low urban peninsula touches the waves of the harbor. This has been the urban view of choice in paintings and engravings of Charleston since the eighteenth century, but its ancient interweaving of land and sea also connects us to Native American ancestors, such as the Kiawah, who first discovered and called the bay home. A poetic evocation of their first arrival was recently summoned in the opening movement of 2022’s A Charleston Concerto, by composer and College of Charleston professor Edward Hart, who recognized “native people’s discovery of the harbor” in glistening, undulating string movements suggestive of sparkling waves, trembling palm fronds, tentative human footsteps, and a spirit of hopeful anticipation for warmth, light, and life.

The city that arose in the colonial period presented a skyline that testified to the universality and persistence of such hopes, even as the violence of empire and slavery darkened the harbor for many. Beginning in the late 1600s, an array of towers and steeples rose on the peninsula as a visual manifestation of the city’s long toleration of religious diversity. Charleston is one of the very few large North American colonial settlements that still has an urban skyline defined by spiritual architecture rather than corporate high-rises. This sacred profile has contributed to the growing popularity of the nickname “Holy City,” which probably dates from the early 1900s, when it was playfully used to evoke both Charlestonians’ love for their deep history and their cosmopolitan, self-assured arrogance. Today, the name calls to mind the city’s stunning array of historic houses of worship. From the Georgian edifice of St. Michael’s Church to the Greek Revival synagogue of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, from the Gothic Revival spire of Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church to the Richardsonian Romanesque shingle and brick of the Circular Church, the superficial stylistic differences of these monumental structures are as varied as the doctrines upheld within them. They share in common, however, the timeless architectural elements that give form to their spiritual power, such as grand symmetries, vital naturalistic ornament, and a meticulous human scale in portals and windows. They have provided spaces of dignity for the prayers of many generations, as Charlestonians of all creeds and colors have lifted their voices in jubilation and in dread, crying out for relief from deadly epidemics, roaring hurricanes, raging fires, and human cruelty.

The artistic spiritual traditions that unite the sanctuaries of Charleston were given new expression in 2019—on the temporal precipice of the latest round of communal trauma—when City Gallery hosted an exhibition entitled The City Luminous: Architectures of Hope in an Age of Fear. Local architect Andrew Gould, who specializes in liturgical art and architecture in the Byzantine and Eastern Orthodox traditions, designed its centerpiece: a Paradise Pavilion uniting Jewish, Christian, and Islamic ornamental and iconographic forms into a single, human-scaled structure embodying the shared architectural history of the Abrahamic faiths and pointing towards their adherents’ common future as citizens of a city, and a world, in dire need of peace and love. Tapping into ancient spiritual traditions and deploying cutting-edge fabrication methods and materials, the Paradise Pavilion offered a radically beautiful vision of a spiritually flourishing modernity.

The Abrahamic faiths that were brought into dialogue by the Paradise Pavilion testify to sacredness of every human life, but Charleston has a long history of religious hypocrisy on this matter. Among the ancestors whose footsteps, voices, and prayers once filled the ancient streets, houses, and sanctuaries of Charleston are the enslaved. They played key roles in every aspect of the city’s life, but the dehumanizing nature of chattel slavery robbed them of so much, including the precious bonds uniting family and friends. This hardship echoes into the present, as the living citizens of the city must work hard and in resourceful ways to trace the presence of people whose names and stories are obscured by the violence of slavery.

Once again, the architecture of Charleston offers pathways into the past: Joseph McGill, tireless director of the Slave Dwelling Project, has drawn attention to the too-often overlooked homes of enslaved people in Charleston and beyond, and has worked with photographers like Dontré Major to seek the fingerprints—physically tiny, but spiritually monumental—of enslaved people that can be found in the hand-molded antebellum bricks that make up so much of Charleston’s fabric. In his words, those prints represent “enslaved ancestors reaching out to us, saying ‘We are here. Tell our stories.’”

Other artists, such as Jonathan Green and Fletcher Williams III, have worked with Spoleto USA and the Historic Charleston Foundation to deploy sculpture, painting, and other media in strategic interventions in the city’s historic spaces, claiming Charleston’s architecture as the work of African-American hands, minds, and spirits, and thereby asserting the presence and power of black ancestors throughout the city. When Walter Hood’s African Ancestors Memorial Garden opens on the Charleston waterfront in 2023, a series of new public sacred spaces will use the language of landscape to empower citizens to see and to feel their crucial spiritual connections to those who came before, and thus to each other.

In 1945, as a guest speaker of the Preservation Society of Charleston proceeded to describe “Old Houses he had known,” his audience made it known to him that they were “interested not only in the antiquity and architecture of buildings,” but also “of beneficent influences sometimes apparently left in the old houses by ghosts of former tenants.” Whether or not ghosts roam the alleys and staircases of Charleston, and whether the spired city has lived up to its holy moniker or, as seems more likely, must continue to seek forgiveness for its many sins, the artful architectural fabrics of this place are spiritually vital. They empower us to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors and listen for their echoes, however faint, and to capture and amplify and interpret them in new songs, architectures, and artworks. Most importantly, they empower us to do all of this together, as we pray and gather our own spirits to the task of weaving fuller and still more beautiful fabrics in a city that is, in so many ways, still rising from the shimmering sea.

 

Works Cited

Andy Brack, “FOCUS: Prints in Clay at Gaillard to celebrate spirituals, culture,” CharlestonCurrents: A Journal of Good News for the Lowcountry, August 27, 2018 (accessed May 11, 2022: https://charlestoncurrents.com/2018/08/focus-prints-in-clay-at-gaillard-to-celebrate-spirituals-culture/)

Rossie M. Colter, Curtis Franks, Elmer Gilliam, Ade Ofunniyin, Bernard E. Powers, Jr., and Katherine Saunders Pemberton, Keeper of the Gate: Philip Simmons Ironwork in Charleston, South Carolina, an online exhibition of the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative, 2014: https://ldhi.library.cofc.edu/exhibits/show/philip_simmons [accessed May 27, 2022].

Alston Deas, “They Shall See Your Good Works,” in Eleanor P. Hart, ed., Preservation Progress, vol. vii, no. 3 (May 1962), 1.

J. Wm. Flinn, ed., The Complete Works of Thomas Smyth, vol. 5 (Columbia, South Carolina: The R. L. Bryan Company, 1908), 58.

R.M. Hitt, Jr., “Hitt’s Runs and Errors,” The News and Courier, Friday, July 19, 1940; see also Edward M. Gilbreth, “Research says ‘Holy City,’ term not church-based,” The Post and Courier, May 25, 2016 (accessed May 10, 2022: https://www.postandcourier.com/archives/research-says-holy-city-term-not-church-based/article_6c820eff-dfea-52f0-b1d1-5e4e0a00eed3.html)

Maura Hogan, “‘A Charleston Concerto’ preps world premiere,” The Post and Courier, Sunday, December 19, 2021, F5.



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Images of the “Holy City”