St. Paul’s Episcopal Is Architectural Gem

Sunday, October 2, 2011 - by John Shearer

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church at Pine and Seventh streets has a look and ambience that opens widely the eyes of architectural enthusiasts on the outside and closes those of contemplative and praying worshipers inside.

The church – which has long been one of the more noticeable historic landmarks along the downtown Chattanooga skyline – was recently the scene of an observance celebrating the 125th anniversary of the laying of its cornerstone.

The building has also received some attention recently over its architect – William Halsey Wood.

The church has learned that architecture historian and professor Ron Ramsay from Fargo, N.D., is doing some research into the architect with plans to write a book and launch a web site.

Reached over the phone about his work, Mr. Ramsay offered praises for St. Paul’s, which was completed and held its first service on Ascension Day (May 10) 1888. In fact, he called the brick and stone church with its conspicuous bell tower an excellent example of the architect’s work, and perhaps a little atypical of his mostly Victorian style.

“The outside of the church has elements that I would consider Georgian,” said Mr. Ramsay, who teaches at North Dakota State University. “That’s not very characteristic of Halsey Wood’s work. When you go inside, it’s much more gothic and much more Victorian.”

Most of Mr. Wood’s work was near the Newark, N.J., area where he lived, so exactly how he designed St. Paul’s while only in his early 30s is a slight mystery. Mr. Ramsay said he has come across some information of a former Tennessee bishop being at Mr. Wood’s wedding in the Catskill Mountains of New York.

Mr. Wood was also a choirmaster and faithful Episcopalian who loved the “high church” rituals of the denomination, Mr. Ramsay said, so his church connections likely played a role in his getting the commission.

While Mr. Wood may have trained others to sing, Mr. Ramsay is singing the architect’s praises, saying Mr. Wood was able to design about 50 mostly Episcopalian churches and 50 other significant structures in a life that was cut short by tuberculosis in 1897 at the age of 41.

“One wonders if he had lived longer, would he have been a major player in turn-of-the-century architecture,” said Mr. Ramsay.

Mr. Ramsay said the architect practiced primarily the Victorian style that was popular in the late 1800s in the United States, but that he did show a move to a more simplified style – even early modernism -- late in his career.

Among his other churches in the South are St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Memphis and St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Anniston, Ala. The work on St. Mary’s was about the time he died, so others may have also been involved in its design, Mr. Ramsey said.

His obituary said he was also involved with the design of a chapel (not All Saints Chapel) at the University of the South in Sewanee.

Perhaps the most famous building connected to Mr. Wood is one he did not design. Mr. Ramsay said Mr. Wood received attention for being one of the four finalists to be the architect for the famous Cathedral of St. John the Divine in upper Manhattan, which has been perennially under construction.

While Mr. Wood’s buildings, including St. Paul’s, often have an appealing style, apparently so did the architect, whose charming love letters to his wife are preserved, Mr. Ramsey said.

Those who have been charmed by St. Paul’s Church and its aesthetically pleasing bell tower are apparently many as well.

“Part of the majesty of the building for newcomers, I think, is the surprising sense of having one’s spirit lifted when entering the building from relatively unimposing doors and a small foyer,” said the Rev. Donald Fishburne, rector at St. Paul’s since 2008.

“Once inside, massive polychrome brickwork is punctuated by arches of different styles – all leading up to the vaulted ceiling and the impressive altar and reredos” (back screen behind the altar).

Mr. Fishburne also said worshipers find the space to be conducive to prayer and worship, despite the massive walls and dark interior.

“The building feels prayed in,” he added. “It comes alive with people and music, including hymn accompaniment from the majestic Casavant Organ installed 25 years ago.”

While the structure is still enjoying a healthy present, no doubt at least in part because of its architecture, it has also had quite a past.

The church was started in the area of the Mountain City Club in 1853 and served as a hospital during the Civil War. Noted pharmaceutical industrialist Eli Lilly was wounded nearby during the war, and some church members have speculated that perhaps he was treated at the church.

After the church moved to its present larger location on land donated by Col. James Whiteside, the differences among its members who had supported both the North and South continued long after the war hostilities stopped.

Susan Cardwell, administrative assistant to the rector, said that those who had supported the Union continued to sit on one side of the nave during the services, and the Confederate sympathizers on the other.

But the wife of William Loaring-Clark, whose rectorship came in the early 1900s, developed an idea of the women in the church coming together to make a quilt that would be raffled off to pay for an organ.

It ended up paying off the long emotional debts from the war as well.

“The women quilting every day would start to come together and realized how much they had in common,” said Ms. Cardwell.

The quilt disappeared for years, but was found in 1997 in storage in a home on Signal Mountain and given back to the church, where it hangs today in a hallway, Ms. Cardwell said. It features the embroidered signatures and initials of the makers, like a 3-D historical document.

The church also tried to serve as a healer decades later, with the Rev. John Bonner leading the church in taking a progressive view toward civil rights and full integration during the social changes of the early 1960s.

The 11 bells in the tower that rang for Christian social justice and have called worshipers for decades were dedicated in 1911 – exactly 100 years ago. They were cast by the McShane factory in Baltimore and given by Mary A. Giles Howard in memory of her father, industrialist David Giles.

The bell from the 1853 church and its cornerstone were given to Thankful Memorial Episcopal Church in St. Elmo.

The altar in St. George’s Chapel beside the nave and the stained glass window to the left as one enters also date to the 1853 church, Ms. Cardwell said.

But most of the current church’s adornments were the creation of a young architect who loved the Episcopal church and shared his faith through a building that has appealed to multiple generations of Chattanooga worshipers and others.

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