Photo Credit: Blake Aued
You may have heard the news already that Nuçi’s Space, the Oconee Street musicians' resource center, has stepped up in hopes of preserving the historic St. Mary’s Episcopal Church steeple—better known as the R.E.M. steeple—next door.
The steeple, like the Murmur trestle just down the road, is a landmark and a pilgrimage site of sorts for R.E.M. fans and anyone immersing themselves in Athens music history. The church was the very first place R.E.M. ever played a show, on Apr. 5, 1980.
St. Mary’s, built in 1869 at the foot of Carr’s Hill, had been turned into residences that were rented out to members of the city's burgeoning music community. Michael Stipe and Peter Buck, who lived there at the time, played at a friend's birthday party at church when their band was known as Twisted Kites. Allegedly, the set was so good that they played it twice. By the end of the month, Twisted Kites had changed their name to R.E.M. (among the other possible names was Can of Piss) and the rest is history.
Believe it or not, though, the Steeple has a history stretching back far prior to that R.E.M. show. St. Mary’s was designed and commissioned in 1869 by Robert Lee Bloomfield for his workers at the Athens Manufacturing Co. Bloomfield based the design on his childhood church in Bound Brook, NJ. Naturally, when Athens Manufacturing Co. closed, St. Mary’s lost many of its parishioners and was subsequently deconsecrated. The Red Cross later used it before it was revamped into residences, leading to its more well-known history.
Ten years after that famous show, the church (except for the steeple) was demolished to make way for Steeplechase Condominiums. Though the steeple was spared because of its illustrious past, no measures were put in place to preserve it. Neglected for decades, it has slowly deteriorated.
In November 2010, Rick Hawkins’ print shop in front of the steeple caught fire. Incidentally, it also played a role in the Athens music scene as the place where bands would go to get their flyers printed in the 1970s and ‘80s. After the fire, Athens-Clarke County inspectors told the Steeplechase Condominium Association they would have to fix the steeple or tear it down. The association voted to tear it down but never followed through.
Bob Sleppy, Nuçi’s Space executive director, said he has been talking to Steeplechase about the steeple since 2004, but at first Steeplechase was only willing to give up the tower itself, not the land underneath. Sounds like the same ruse pulled a few months back when the Stiles House in Five Points was up for grabs—with the exception that the steeple is in terrible condition, weighs tons and is virtually impossible to move. Why did they even bother with leaving the steeple up if they had no intention of preserving it?
Thankfully, they have been working with Nuçi’s Space since April to give the nonprofit the land underneath the steeple as well as the structure itself. The unrealistic task of moving a deteriorating hulk of brick is no longer the only way to save the structure.
Sleppy hired Whitsel Construction, a firm experienced in historic preservation. Workers performed what he described as "exploratory surgery" last week, removing a wall that had been part of the church (it was not attached to rest of the steeple) and had a poison ivy vine growing through it. A vine is also growing in between two layers of bricks in another wall, which is helping to hold the structure together while at the same time destabilizing it, according it Sleppy.
The total cost of stabilization will be around $25,000, according to Sleppy. An anonymous out-of-town donor has given about half of that, and a fundraising campaign down the road should raise the rest. Nuçi’s Space is looking into total preservation costs, but for now making sure the steeple is not a hazard is their main concern.
Amy Kissane, director of the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation, said it best: “I think being in Nuci's hands, the steeple is as safe as it can be, and the community owes them a huge thank you for stepping up to save it.”