Cathedral gets new steeple after nearly a century

Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, cross, steeple

Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, cross, steepleCHARLESTON—The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist added another landmark to the Holy City on March 8 when its new steeple and cross were hoisted into place.

After the 12:05 p.m. Mass, hundreds of people gathered on the Cathedral lawn to watch as Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone blessed the new addition from a scissor lift before it was raised skyward.

He thanked everyone who helped make the historic event possible. He said the cross was a sign of the Christian presence in the community, a presence that is found in the people, but it would serve as a reminder to all.

Buttresses were lifted into place the next day and finishing touches will be completed by the end of the week, according to Rueben Solar of Glenn Keyes Architects, the firm handling the design.

The new steeple is made mostly of copper and has three major parts. The belfry is comprised of four arches that create what Solar described as a lantern; the steeple looks like a lattice work frame atop which is the gold-gilded Celtic cross.

In a telephone interview, Solar said the open design was used to meet building code weight restrictions. By working with lighter materials they made a taller structure that can endure hurricane force winds.

Instead of a solid steeple that would act similar to a big sail, the new design allows air to flow through and reduces impact to the tower and the building below.

Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, steeple, cross, Charleston, South CarolinaThe architects used copper as a way to transition from the brownstone into other materials.

“The copper was a perfect fit for that on several different levels,” he said. “It is lighter than stone and is a material that ages gracefully, with no maintenance, painting, or stucco.”

The original design concept came from architectural details on the Cathedral’s main altar, Solar said.
Erno Ovari, a master German coppersmith now based out of Utah, handled the copper work and the gilding of the cross.

Solar said Hightower Construction came up with the innovative idea from their boat works company to use a fiberglass and epoxy blend to form a core for some of the copper elements.

By using the cold mold method the construction company was able to create the look they needed within the weight limitations. The corner pieces were made from cast stone to give the appearance of solid masonry.

“We can all walk away from this feeling like we’ve got a structural system on the inside that’s going to stand the test of time and an architecture that is going to stand the test of time,” Solar said.

The Cathedral has not had a spire since the first structure burned down in 1861. The current church was completed in 1907 without a steeple because it was too costly. A major restoration of the exterior began in 2007.

Since that time, damaged brownstone has been replaced, the mortar joints were repointed, and the original stained glass windows were re-leaded and covered with protective glass by Bovard Studios out of Iowa.

Three bronze bells were added last fall. From the ground up the Cathedral now reaches approximately 167 feet.

The project cost $6.2 million. Father Gregory B. Wilson, rector pro tem, said organizers still have to raise about $400,000. He said the project scope is beyond that of a Cathedral parish effort, because more than half of the total donations came from people around the state.

“This has truly been a diocesan-wide accomplishment,” he said.

A Cathedral restoration celebration is planned for May 2 at the 11:15 a.m. Mass, which will be attended by Bishop Robert J. Baker and Msgr. Joseph Roth, former Cathedral rector, who helped initiate the project.