A Facelift for Downtown Columbia’s Grande Dame

Restoration project prepares Trinity Cathedral for the next 200 years

Photography by Kathryn Gaiennie

Long the grande dame of Columbia’s downtown skyline, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral had slowly slipped into a period of old age, greatly in need of a facelift and new structural underpinnings. Today, after four years of planning, fundraising and restoration work, the cathedral gleams with the shine of a newly restored interior and exterior.
The project, in anticipation of Trinity’s 200th anniversary in 2012, was unlike anything undertaken in the congregation’s history in scope, cost, local craftsmanship and attention to detail.

The primary movers behind the $7 million project were members of a campaign steering committee chaired by Mary Rainey Belser and including Vance Bettis, Sally Caughman, Lyles Glenn, John Moorman and Jim Smith. Buddy Hill chaired the Building Committee.

(L to R) Wilson Farrell, project manager, Mary Belser, campaign steering committee chair and Buddy Hill, building committee chair.

In kicking off the campaign to raise funds for the project, Mary said to the congregation, “None of us were here at the laying of the foundation stone in 1846, and we may not be here when more is built in the future, but we can protect and preserve that which generations before us started and other generations have carried forward.”

Working closely with the campaign committee was Wilson Farrell, the project manager. He served in a similar capacity for projects at Laurel Crest Retirement Center, the Columbia Museum of Art and First Presbyterian Church, but says the one at Trinity rivals anything he has worked on in his 45-year career in commercial construction and corporate real estate.

“I have built or renovated literally millions of square feet of commercial projects, but in all their aggregate they are nowhere near as meaningful to me as Trinity,” Wilson says. “Not even close, not even in the same league.”

Mary and Wilson each brought an artistic sensibility and appreciation for the historical significance of the building to the daily management of this project, which blended the congregation’s reverence of its spiritual past and a respect for the building’s history.

Dr. Walter Edgar, renowned southern scholar and member of Trinity Cathedral, has spent 31 years documenting the history of the church. He notes in a series of articles for the cathedral newsletter that this restoration project marked the fourth time in the congregation’s history that members of Trinity have entered their sanctuary “again for the first time.”

“The congregation’s latest move into its sanctuary has been as meaningful as the previous three,” Walter says. “On October 31, 2010, on the eve of All Saints Day, several of us stood at the main entrance to the cathedral and watched members of the congregation enter their restored sanctuary for the first time. Their expressions of joy, thanksgiving and awe mirrored the words of those recorded in 1814, 1847 and 1862.”

In his history of the cathedral, Walter writes that the church was founded in 1812 by 11 well-respected members of the Columbia community under the leadership of a bishop from Charleston who understood the importance of having an Episcopal presence in the state capital city and the home of the South Carolina College (now USC). Their first meetings were held in the state capitol building, which was a typical gathering place for church services at the time. The first wooden church building that held about 250 people was dedicated in 1814, and the congregation grew quickly over the next 30 years.

By 1847, Walter writes, the original wooden church building was no longer large enough to hold the congregation, which had grown to be one of the largest of any church in the diocese. A new rectangular brick structure was built to replace the original wooden church. The exterior walls were covered in lime stucco scored to resemble stone, like the restored building of today.

During the 1850s, Walter notes, the congregation continued to expand and quickly outgrew its space again. In 1860, construction began anew, including the addition of transepts, or side crossings, and the chancel, which give the building its recognizable cruciform (cross) shape today.

During that time, the congregation worshipped in what is now Longstreet Theater at USC, a less than satisfactory alternative according to accounts from the time, Walter says. With the Civil War delaying plans for the construction project, the congregation was first able to worship in the newly expanded building on June 15, 1862. It was that structure – which served as the foundation for the building of today – that has seen the history of Columbia through baptisms, weddings, funerals and state occasions for generations.

By 2006, it became clear that old age had caught up with this grand lady. Initially it was water leaks that started it all, says Mary, who served as president of the Trinity Foundation Commission. “I made a plea to the Foundation Commission members to investigate the leaks and their causes.” That led to a closer evaluation of other repairs and restoration work that had to be done to avoid more problems in the future.

In late 2006, the Trinity Foundation Commission asked a local architect to study the need for restoration work in anticipation of the 200th anniversary of the founding of the church in 2012. He was one of many local professionals and craftsmen to play a part in this restoration project.

A comprehensive report found significant internal structural problems. “One thing led to another,” Mary says. “More problems were found in the mortar in the brick joints and with the crumbling bricks. There were huge cracks in the structure that required steel pins and iron plates for stability. Wood was termite-eaten and rotten. There were numerous very difficult problems that absolutely had to be addressed or the building was going to fall down. Period.”

From the start, the project was to be a restoration rather than a renovation. “We made every effort to stick to the original intent of the building,” Mary says. “We returned it to its original color, repaired and preserved the box pews, and generally restored the integrity of the building itself.”

When they couldn’t maintain historical accuracy, there was a good reason. “In some cases the quality of the original material was inferior,” Mary says. For example, the new spires atop the cathedral were changed from ordinary sheet metal to copper.

The exterior of the cathedral was restored to its original color.

“We used materials that would stand the test of time,” Mary says. This included adding modern amenities such as a fire suppression system under the building and in the roof and new sound, lighting, heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.

While some of the work was done around daily worship services, the congregation did move out of the cathedral while the bulk of the internal structural work was done. For just over two years of the four-year restoration process, services took place in Averyt Hall in the newly completed Trinity Center for Mission and Ministry.

As with any project of this magnitude, numerous surprises popped up along the way … and many were not welcome surprises, Mary and Wilson agree. One of the biggest concerns discovered after the initial planning work was the condition of the trusses, or arches, that hold up the interior roof in the cathedral.

“The walls looked like they were leaning away from the trusses, but we were in for a surprise,” Mary said. “After detailed study, it seemed the trusses were pulling away from the walls. The walls were, indeed, absolutely straight.”

Another big surprise came when workers removed the stucco from the west wall on the Sumter Street side of the building and found giant cracks that went all the way through the building. “That could have caused a catastrophic collapse,” Mary says. “It was just a matter of time.”

Workers installed 12-inch wide steel plates around the window arch with stainless steel rods to “sandwich” the cracked wall. “It had just been repaired haphazardly in the past,” Mary says. “Some of the cracks were so big you could put your hand through them. You could see repairs from the past that didn’t fix the cracks. They were just stuccoed over.”

A number of the interesting finds discovered during the project require some supposition rather than fact to figure out. “We found what appeared to be a pipe that was probably a flue to a potbellied stove,” he says. Workers also found voids in the exterior walls that they believe were the chimneys for three original fireplaces dating back to the 1862 construction.

Heating the 11,000-square-foot building historically was done with fireplaces and, later, a coal burning boiler until 1958. “The 1958 system was in service until the replacement last year.” Wilson laughs when he says, “We’ve finally got our second modern heat and air conditioning system in there.”

In preparation for the interior work, the historic box pews were removed to make room for the scaffolding required for the structural repairs. Wilson notes, “These are not ordinary pews of one piece per row. Each pew had at least half a dozen pieces.” As they were disassembled, the pieces were numbered and labeled so that each piece could be returned to its exact original location.

As with many parts of this project, local craftsmanship can also be seen in the pews. “Lowery Painting did the refinishing after repairs and changes, such as the modifications for handicap seating that were made. Steve Davis and his crew at Hood Construction then reinstalled the pews,” Wilson says.

The original box pews were taken out piece by piece to be repaired and preserved.

One of the crowning glories of the cathedral is its stained glass windows. In June 2009, the windows above the altar were removed for restoration by Shenandoah Restorations in Irmo. During this phase, the exterior of the cathedral on the east side of the building was covered with a spiderweb of scaffolding that allowed one of the oldest windows, “Jesus and the Children” which is known as the Shand window, to be removed and rebuilt. After the repairs by Shenandoah, the window was reinstalled with protective glazing.


The stained glass windows above the altar were removed, restored and reinstalled with a protective glazing.

“The windows in the cathedral were installed over a period of years with some as recently as the 1970s and 1980s, while some date all the way back to the earliest days of the building.” Mary says. The window over the altar is a very valuable one, Wilson notes. It was made by the Belcher Mosaic Glass Company, the same manufacturer of one of the windows in the statehouse, and installed in honor of Peter Shand after his death in 1886.

Stained glass windows come apart in sections, Wilson says. “For many windows, we removed just the sections that needed work. But when we found problems in the west wall we took those out completely.”

The restoration project also afforded the cathedral the chance to make the space for the choir and organ more flexible for services and concerts.

“The changes to the choir area were inspired by a joint impulse to restore the original placement of the organ console while providing symmetrical, well-balanced seating for the choir,” says Jared Johnson, canon organist and choirmaster.

The organ console was moved from the north side to the south side of the chancel, a significantly larger space. This move allowed the choir seating to change from seven pews on the south and two on the north to a symmetrical three rows on each side.

The choir stalls were rebuilt, preserving the original Victorian carved ends and modesty screens. The front rows were mounted on rolling platforms that can be moved easily to open the chancel area for a concert. The desks and lamps were modeled after those in Canterbury Cathedral and were made by hand by the Luke Hughes Co. of London.

“The organ itself also underwent major restorative work,” says Jared. “The pipe work was completely removed, cleaned and re-installed over 6 months. One craftsman spent more than a week inside the organ chambers cleaning every nook of the organ’s wind mechanisms.”

The organ’s reed pipes were shipped to the original builder’s shop in Quebec and revoiced to provide warmer, more elegant sound. Upon reinstallation, a team of organ builders spent three weeks on site adjusting by hand the balance and tone of each of the organ’s 4,040 pipes.

“The organ now sounds more beautiful than when it was brand new,” Jared says. “And all music sounds magical in the resonant acoustics and architectural splendor of the restored cathedral.”

The restored chapel provides ample space for smaller services.

Several more interesting surprises were found during the restoration project. “For example, we found the back door of the church went out from the dean’s desk which is the narrow hallway connecting the sacristy to the chancel,” Wilson says. “We think this was probably the entire church office back when the church was initially expanded.”

Another interesting find was on the doors from the side aisles to the Sumter Street side of the building. Hinges on the doors are stamped on the back with “T&C Clark Tariff #200” and are believed to have been there on the structure dating back to the 1840s. Wilson says one of the minor causes of the Civil War was the tariff act which is reflected in the words on the hinge.

One of the most magnificent visual changes is the dramatic red ceiling with a layout of crosses over the altar. Wilson says, “The shape of the plaster ceiling was worked out here in the field. Again the work was the result of local talent and craftsmanship.”

The shade of the red color was “invented” by Sally Caughman of Pulliam-Morris Interiors, who was the guiding force behind the interior design choices in the cathedral.

“Although Sally died before the completion of the project and her illness had taken much of her eyesight,” Mary says, “she knew in her mind’s eye what the cathedral would look like when it was finished.”

The layout of the crosses was created by Michael Cassidy of Cassidy Painting in Columbia. “Michael and his crew painted the dome and applied the gold-leaf crosses. He also did the work on the ceiling of the Seibels Chapel in the cathedral,” Wilson says.

And so today, this grand lady of downtown Columbia is cleaned up, shored up, clad in her magnificent finery and ready to embark on her second 200 years as a center of worship, history and culture.

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