Nuçi's Space is hoping to preserve and possibly restore the steeple of a nearby former church made famous as the site of R.E.M.'s first-ever show in 1980.
The Oconee Street musicians' resource center, next door to what remains of St. Mary's Episcopal Church, recently acquired the steeple. Whitsel Construction, an experienced historic preservation contractor, is now conducting "exploratory surgery" to find out if and how it can be saved, Nuçi's Space Executive Director Bob Sleppy said.
Most of the church, built in 1869, was torn down in 1990 to make way for condos, and the steeple has been neglected ever since. The Steeplechase Condominium Association voted in 2011 to demolish it rather than spend the money to maintain it, prompting the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation to raise the alarm.
Nuçi's Space has been talking to Steeplechase about the steeple since 2004, Sleppy said, but the condominium owners were only willing to hand over the structure, not the land underneath. That changed in 2010, after Rick Hawkins' print shop burned, and Athens-Clarke County inspectors told Steeplechase to either fix it or tear it down. (The condo association's intention was never really to demolish it, Sleppy said.) In April, the two parties reached an agreement for Nuçi's Space to acquire the steeple and land for free.
This morning, workers removed a non-load-bearing wall that had been damaged by a poison ivy vine to stabilize the steeple.
"It was basically a free-standing wall that wasn't very secure," Sleppy said. "We basically had to make the decision to take down that wall and stabilize it."
They discovered that the vine had also damaged another wall by growing in between two layers of bricks. Oh, and they also trucked out 14 decades' worth of pigeon waste.
Sleppy said he is confident the steeple can be restored. For now, though, the first priority is simply to stabilize it while Nuçi's Space figures out how much money permanent preservation would cost and evaluates whether the effort would take away from its core mission of providing affordable mental health care to musicians.
"That's our immediate concern right now, not the preservation part, but trying to make sure the structure is secure and not falling down," he said, adding that "it seems to be in pretty good shape for a building that's 143 years old."
It's not in immediate danger of toppling over, Sleppy said. Stabilizing it will cost about $25,000, and Nuçi's Space has raised about half that from an out-of-town donor; a fundraising campaign to raise the rest will come later, he said.
"We're in a little bit of limbo right now trying to figure out what our next step is," he said.
Since R.E.M.'s rise to fame, the steeple has become a tourist attraction for fans around the world making the pilgrimage to Athens. It's also one of the few remnants of Carr's Hill, the founding site of Athens.
"It'd be nice to hold on to at least a little bit of the history of this part of town," Sleppy said.