The church was not originally built by Unitarians, but a large group of Charlestonians called the “Society of Dissenters.” Over the next 30 years, the minister and many congregants began to identify themselves as Unitarians, so the church was officially re-chartered in 1839. In the years that followed, member and Charleston architect Francis D. Lee undertook the job of enlarging and remodeling the church. Inspired by the Chapel of Henry VII at Westminster Abbey and St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, Lee began work in 1852 and completed the project within two years. Rather than attempting to recreate an expensive carved stone ceiling – like those at Westminster or St. George’s, Lee got creative.
While touring the church, I learned that Lee was also a ship builder. In order to be more cost efficient, while also creating the elaborate design of the church’s ceiling, he utilized ship-building methods and materials – disguised by plaster. While looking at the ceiling, you can easily visualize the similarities between the rib vault architecture (curved design) and the curves in a wooden ship.
Lee’s work at the church is said to have catapulted his career as an architect. Even today, “The fan-vaulted ceiling in the nave and chancel, and the painted glass window, are considered among the finest in the country.” (https://charlestonuu.org/history/)
The church has suffered damage due to war and earthquakes, but has been restored each time with painstaking attention to detail.
Outside the church is an equally striking churchyard. At first glance, one might think that the yard and graves that it contains have become overgrown and neglected. However, the sidewalks are maintained for visitors. The landscaping grows naturally, giving it a peaceful “secret garden” feel.
Much of Unitarian’s hymns and devotionals regard the environment and natural world as God’s freedom of expression and creative power. In allowing the graveyard to grow naturally, this is an expression of a deeply sacred place. Whatever your beliefs, visitors return time and time again to navigate the thin paths through this thicket of palm trees, magnolias, Spanish moss, tall grass, and historic headstones.
Posts are a combination of my own research, visits, and conversations, plus various information found around the web. I try to provide sources, but if you have specific questions, feel free to ask!