Save the Steeple

The St. Mary’s Episcopal Church Steeple at sunrise on Tuesday, November 11, 2014. The Steeple is all that is left of where R.E.M played their first show in 1980. (Photo/Devon L. Tucker

Athenians often associate the St. Mary’s Church steeple near the intersection of Oconee and Williams streets with R.E.M. and, more recently, Nuçi’s Space, which sits adjacent. But the steeple has a rich history dating to its construction in 1869.

Robert Lee Bloomfield elected to hold services two Sundays a month in an Athens Factory building in 1869. Bloomfield owned the Athens Manufacturing Company and built the church for his employees. On April 9, 1871 St. Mary’s Protestant Episcopal Church opened its door for Easter Sunday services.

According to Marc Tissenbaum, project manager for Nuçi’s Space, regular services were held until 1892 and had ceased by 1899. In 1945, St. Mary’s Church was the Red Cross headquarters. During the 1960s, it was occupied by an Athens-Clarke County museum. After that, Tissenbaum said the church was renovated into student apartments.

“R.E.M played a birthday party there for their friends, April 5, 1980. And no one had any idea what the significance of that event would be. But they were the last tenants, and it fell into a state of disrepair at that point,” he said. “I remember going in the church. It was in horrible shape. It was a scary building — you could get hurt in there. By 1990, it was torn down to make the Steeplechase Condominiums.”

In 1967 students began living in the church. The church was leased to R.E.M. more than a decade later as a place to live, write and practice music. On April 5, 1980 R.E.M. played its first public concert there.

“[The church] was a really unique structure. [Bloomfield] based it on a church he attended where he grew up in New Jersey,” Tissenbaum said. “When it stood, it was really unique architecture. There was nothing else like it here. It was imported from his idea of a church from the North.”

Just before 1990, the Athens City Council unanimously passed a rezoning request, which permitted the construction of 16 condominiums. In 1989, Cartwright executed a quitclaim deed to developer John R. Green.

Green executed the warranty deed of St. Mary’s Church to Steeplechase Condominiums in 1990. Demolition ensued, with the steeple as the only remaining structure acknowledging the church’s former presence.

For 14 years, the Steeplechase Homeowners Association maintained ownership of the steeple. In 2004, Steeplechase publicly announced desire to divest itself of the St. Mary’s Church steeple. At that time, no other organization expressed interest in taking over ownership.

In 2013, Nuçi’s Space acquired ownership of the St. Mary’s Church steeple. Early this November, Nuçi’s Space launched a fundraising campaign to renovate the steeple and add a meditation garden.

Jake Goodman, a fifth-year mass media arts major from Roswell, said he believes preserving the steeple is the best way for people to learn its history. A former resident of Steeplechase Condominiums, Goodman spent many days walking past the steeple and Nuçi’s Space.

“I think the steeple is an incredible landmark for Athens, and because Athens is changing so rapidly I think it needs to be preserved,” he said. “Not many people know about the rich history here and the steeple represents so many facets of Athens culture and history.”

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