A century after construction, church installs steeple

CHARLESTON - At 12:26 p.m. Monday, three new church bells pealed over downtown Charleston for the first time.

Father Gregory Wilson used a mallet to ring them in celebration of their successful move via crane to the top of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.

"This is the fulfillment of a real dream," he said, referring to the installation of the first portion of the church's 82-foot-tall steeple and spire.

When St. John was built in 1890, the architects and congregation wanted a steeple on the Gothic Revival church, but there wasn't enough money to build it.

More than a century later, that has finally changed. As Hightower Construction Co. crews finish restoring the Cathedral's Connecticut Brownstone facade, they are turning their attention to installing the steeple designed by architect Glenn Keyes.

The first step took place Monday, as a crane slowly lifted a steel cage with the three bells into position atop the cathedral's formerly flat roof.

The bells were cast in France, and they together form an E-major chord. The middle bell is the same note as the lowest bell in the belfry of St. John's Lutheran Church a block away, Wilson said, "so when they're all ringing it will be an interesting and complementary mix."

That 3-ton load was just a warm-up, though, as the crane lifted a 13-ton square bell tower roof deck into place just moments later.

Dozens of people craned their necks skyward along Broad Street's sidewalks and atop a nearby parking garage as the pieces slowly wafted into place. Jesse Rhodes of Hightower Construction said the lift went well - "zero hitches or glitches." Crews will begin at 9 this morning to install eight more pieces that make up the steeple structure that will house the bells.

Those pieces are being constructed in Goose Creek, and while Keyes' design has them made from precast concrete, they will be colored to match the church's existing brownstone.

Then by February, yet another section of the steeple will be put in place.

The final piece, a copper-clad spire, is scheduled to be installed just before Easter on April 4. "That will be the most interesting part, the final section," Keyes said. Rhodes agreed: "You ain't seen nothing yet. That's the best I can put it."