A visitor from Chattanooga passing through downtown Anniston, Ala., and its tree-lined Quintard Avenue (U.S. Highway 431) will likely notice an unusually high number of architecturally detailed churches built decades ago.
But perhaps the most eye-catching church cannot be seen from here, but from several blocks west past a number of mostly modest – and sometimes vacant -- homes from the late 1800s and early 1900s.
At the corner of West 18th Street and Cobb Avenue, on a grass- and tree-covered square plot of around 2 to 5 acres, sits what looks like an old cathedral or abbey from a rural English or Irish countryside.
It is the Church of St. Michael and All Angels, an Episcopal Church completed and consecrated in 1890.
Although its classic architecture and well-laid-out grounds would likely make a visitor or worshiper feel restful and relaxed, it might especially make a Chattanoogan feel at home.
The reason is that the church was designed by William Halsey Wood, a Northeasterner who also was the architect of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Chattanooga.
By chance, the interim rector of the Anniston church is the Rev. Hugh Jones of Soddy-Daisy, who, before his retirement, served as rector at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church near Chester Frost Park in Hixson and St. Thaddeus Episcopal Church near highways 58 and 153.
Dr. Jones said he was quite impressed with the setting of St. Michael’s after seeing it shortly before he began serving as interim rector in August 2011.
“The physical plant is obviously stunning,” he said. “It was jaw dropping when I first saw it.”
The architect Mr. Wood, a Newark, N.J., resident, had designed a number of Episcopal churches and other structures before his death from tuberculosis in 1897 at the relatively young age of 41. He had also been a finalist for the design of the famous Cathedral of St. John the Divine in upper Manhattan.
He was working on the design of St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Memphis shortly before his death, and that is believed to be about the only other structure in the South he designed, other than possibly an earlier chapel (not All Saints Chapel) at the University of the South in Sewanee.
The fact that he received the Southern commissions may have been because he was active in the Episcopal church, and because the Tennessee bishop of the Episcopal diocese, Charles Todd Quintard, attended his wedding.
Bishop Quintard, by the way, is the man for whom the main street in Anniston is named, according to the Anniston-Calhoun County library.
St. Paul’s in Chattanooga was completed in 1888, and St. Michael’s in Anniston in 1890, so those involved in the construction of St. Michael were likely aware of and liked the look of St. Paul’s.
St. Michael’s was built through the generosity of John Ward Noble, a very successful industrialist who started a number of iron mills in Anniston in the 1800s. An Episcopalian who was likely involved in naming the main street after the bishop, he received permission from the bishop of Alabama to organize and build a second parish after Grace Episcopal Church, the first Episcopal church in Anniston, was unable to support all the mill workers and their families who came primarily from England.
The church received its name because it was consecrated on Sept. 29, which was both the birthday of donor Mr. Noble and the feast day in the church of St. Michael the archangel and the other angels.
Standing outside the St. Michael church, one gets the feeling of being either on the grounds of an old English cathedral or maybe even an old American college or prep school campus. The setting even has a little medieval feel to it.
Only a look away from the church reveals to a visitor that he or she is in an older, modest neighborhood in a small Alabama town.
The inside of St. Michael’s has a look different from the outside, although it is just as interesting and detailed.
As was pointed out by sexton Garry Rudolph, who kindly offered a tour of the church on the day after Christmas, the nave features intricate woodwork on the ceiling, wooden angel heads facing the altar on the ends of ceiling beams, and an elaborate marble altar.
Although the Anniston church features stone on the outside, and St. Paul’s in Chattanooga is comprised mostly of brick, the two structures have a familiarity to each other, as is often the case with buildings designed by the same architect.
This connection can be seen in the towers, the arches and other outside features of the two structures.
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga art and architecture professor Dr. Gavin Townsend agreed after looking at some pictures of St. Michael’s.
“Both churches have arched entrances deeply set within a gabled portal. Both the towers and portals are also supported by short-stepped buttresses” (wall reinforcements), he said.
He also said that the two towers have a similar pattern for their openings (fenestrations), both also have a similar design pattern (crenellation) at the top, and both feature simple crosses projecting from a hipped roof.
However, he added, “St. Michael’s is more castle-like though, built all of stone and sporting an arrow slit in the center. The clock within does little to suppress the keep-like look. In contrast, St. Paul’s tower has more open windows and quoins (corner masonry blocks) that look more ecclesiastical than military in nature.”
He also said that Mr. Wood’s use of towers could have been because he likely studied in England about the time of British Gothic Revivalist George Frederick Bodley, who was also a fan of the square-towered parish church.
While the Anniston church is a local architectural and historical treasure and it has some endowment money for help with the upkeep and preservation, the church’s spiritual presence faces a more challenging future.
Not only are mainline denominations like the Episcopal church facing declining attendance numbers, but the Anniston church is located in a secluded and not as fashionable location away from suburban growth or a main downtown street.
Dr. Jones said the church averages about 80 in attendance on an average Sunday, although it had a good crowd on Christmas Eve. Besides catering to its regular worshipers, the church also has some outreach ministries that involve even better its immediate neighbors who may be struggling financially or in other ways.
He said part of the work in looking for a permanent rector involves some long-range visioning for the kind of church it wants or needs to become.
“There are problems, but we feel like there are also opportunities for ministry,” he said.
And if the church is able to continue moving forward positively in its ministry efforts, its praised architecture that reflects its kinship with a well-known downtown Chattanooga church will likely be a key reason.