Photo Credit: Jason Thrasher
Towering over a nondescript Oconee Street parking lot on the edge of downtown, the red brick steeple is the sole remnant of St. Mary's Episcopal Church. Constructed in 1869 as a house of worship, after it was deconsecrated, the building housed a Salvation Army outpost and an Athens museum, among other tenants, before being converted into apartments in the late 1960s.
The church's role in Athens music history is well documented: The site of R.E.M.'s first-ever show in April 1980—at the time, the group was called Twisted Kites—it also functioned during that creatively fertile era as the home of three of the band's four members.
The building was demolished in 1990 and replaced by condominiums. The severed tower remained, a symbol of the location's cultural significance, though it has fallen into disrepair over the last decade and was briefly threatened with demolition in 2011.
Last October, the Steeplechase Condominium Association agreed instead to hand the St. Mary's steeple over to Nuçi's Space, the adjacent musicians' health and resource center. Backed by a sizable donation from a California couple, Nuçi's Space Executive Director Bob Sleppy asked a construction firm well versed in historic preservation to assess whether it could be saved. An ivy-damaged wall was removed in order to help stabilize the spire, though it was found to be in fair structural condition.
Last week, after months of quiet planning, and with the participation of locally bred, globally recognized artists like R.E.M., The B-52's, Widespread Panic, Drive-By Truckers and Neutral Milk Hotel, Nuçi's Space launched an online crowdfunding campaign, titled "Reconstruction of the Steeple," to raise money to complete the stabilization and restoration project, as well as to help sustain the nonprofit, which relies solely on private funding, for the coming year.
"The steeple is the iconic symbol of Athens music, I think—what's left from where we were," says Marc Tissenbaum, Reconstruction of the Steeple project manager. "When I first got here in 1986, everyone knew that was the R.E.M. steeple. When you were coming in from the Eastside, that was the edge of downtown. It's a landmark. It's a beacon. It's a lot of things."
But Nuçi's Space isn't in the business of historic preservation, stresses Tissenbaum. "We don't want local people to think we're spending the money we should be spending on our clients on the steeple. That's not the case."
Roughly $60,000 of the whopping $250,000 the campaign seeks will go toward saving and renovating the steeple, which will require installing a floor, replacing windows, reinforcing walls and replacing bricks removed during the exploratory phase. Nuçi's Space also plans to transform the area surrounding the steeple into a place for peaceful gathering for clients, staff and Athens music pilgrims, complete with a small garden.
The rest of the money will help fund the center's programming, including subsidized mental and physical health appointments for musicians, scholarships to the Camp Amped youth series and access to meeting facilities for community groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Survivors of Suicide.
Despite the campaign's flashy presentation, saving the steeple is "not our top priority," Tissenbaum says candidly. "We're paying for therapy, and sessions for people, and that's expensive work. We thought [the campaign] could be a megaphone to the world. We can say who we are, and what we are, and what we're doing. That's the most important thing to us."
Drive-By Truckers frontman Patterson Hood, who sits on the Nuçi's board, concurs, adding that the economic downturn, paired with increased demand for the center's services, has created a fundraising shortage.
"The steeple gives [us] this huge launching pad," he says, but "the vast majority of the money will be for the people who need the services of Nuçi's Space, and also to put it on a better financial footing."
The strategy seems literally to have paid off. With those A-list names attached, the Reconstruction of the Steeple project was picked up by national music press almost immediately, garnering coverage everywhere from Rolling Stone to Pitchfork. On its first day, the campaign raised over $50,000. ("I didn't go to bed until it happened," says Tissenbaum.)
Donor rewards include one-of-a-kind pieces of local music history, like Pylon's orange traffic cone stage props; posters for Brute, the Widespread Panic/Vic Chesnutt collaboration, signed by the band's members, including the late Chesnutt and Michael Houser; B-52's singer Kate Pierson's iconic black sequined dress; and individual bricks removed from the steeple itself.
"In a lot of ways, it's a very local campaign," Tissenbaum says. "All of the bands [involved] have been great, and it's because they've either been helped or know someone who's been helped."
Hood can attest to the importance of the nonprofit's programs on a personal level. "My wife [Rebecca Wright Hood, former board president] would be the first person to tell you that she wouldn't be alive today if it wasn't for the help she got from Nuçi's Space," he says.
The next challenge is maintaining the initial enthusiasm until the Dec. 13 deadline. Tissenbaum notes that, though money from beyond our borders has rolled steadily in, local donations have thus far been few and far between, something he hopes to remedy by reaching out to Athenians who have been directly affected by the center.
"Athens is a very homemade kind of place," says Tissenbaum. "The music community is very tight-knit. If you need somebody to play guitar on your record, they'll do that. If you need somebody to talk to, they'll do that. If you're Nuçi's Space, and you reach out and say, 'We've been helping you, and now we need your help,' everyone comes running. That is very well reflected in this campaign, and I think that's what makes Athens magic."