You are here
Circular Congregational Church
The Circular Congregational Church, which fronts on one of the main thoroughfares of historic Charleston, is the finest surviving example of Romanesque Revival architecture in South Carolina, where instances of the style were never numerous. It is an imposing structure that stands on the site of three earlier buildings belonging to the same congregation. The present church derives its name from the third building on the site, built in 1806 by Robert Mills. The design specified a circular auditorium, possibly based on James Gibbs’s unused project for St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London. Mills’s church was destroyed in Charleston’s Great Fire of 1861, although its ruined walls remained standing until brought down by the 1886 earthquake. Subsequently, the congregation obtained plans from the New York firm Stephenson and Greene and used them to erect its fourth and current home.
Built upon the foundation of the former church, the present structure also utilizes bricks from the destroyed Mills building. Above the circular foundation, the church’s superstructure is a Greek cross, with three of the arms ending in apses so as to suggest a trilobed form. The circularity of the foundations is expressed in elevation only to the top of the ground floor. Over the crossing rises a tower quite reminiscent of that of Henry Hobson Richardson’s Trinity Church (1872–1877) in Boston. The heavy exterior of the Circular Congregational Church belies the remarkable lightness of its interior. Engaged colonnettes emphasize the lines implied where the plain plastered walls change direction. The lines of the colonnettes continue upward and branch into a network of beams that carry the ceiling. The interior woodwork was carried out in pine.
The Circular Congregational Church is usually interpreted as evidence of Richardson’s influence in the South. Richardson, more than any other architect, was certainly responsible for the success of the Romanesque Revival in the United States, but he was by no means the only champion of that style. Among its other early and masterful adepts was one of Richardson’s contemporaries, J. Cleveland Cady of New York. From the 1870s onward, Cady produced a series of much admired Romanesque Revival church designs. In the 1880s and 1890s, New York firms including Cady, Berg and See and Stephenson and Greene fueled a local vogue for Romanesque Revival architecture. Their work trended increasingly away from the Richardsonian Romanesque yet remained recognizably akin to it, with the Circular Congregational Church being one such example.
The Circular Church’s architecture might simply be accepted as a typical product of New York’s nexus of Romanesque Revival architects active in the 1890s. Alternatively, the influence of Cady, rather than Richardson, might account for Stephenson and Greene’s architectural treatment of the Circular Congregational Church. In either case, the church’s architecture reached Charleston as a Yankee import, having appealed to the congregation as a marker of cosmopolitan sophistication. In much the same way, for much the same reasons and via an identical route, Charleston had acquired some of its finest Greek Revival architecture in the antebellum period.
Calhoun, Joanne. The Circular Church: Three Centuries of Charleston History. Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2008.
Poston, Jonathan H. The Buildings of Charleston: A Guide to the City’s Architecture. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.
Preservation Society of Charleston. The Churches of Charleston and the Lowcountry. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994.
Stephenson, Tray, and Bernard Kearse, “Circular Congregational Church and Parish House,” Charleston County, South Carolina. National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form, 1973. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
If SAH Archipedia has been useful to you, please consider supporting it.
SAH Archipedia tells the story of the United States through its buildings, landscapes, and cities. This freely available resource empowers the public with authoritative knowledge that deepens their understanding and appreciation of the built environment. But the Society of Architectural Historians, which created SAH Archipedia with University of Virginia Press, needs your support to maintain the high-caliber research, writing, photography, cartography, editing, design, and programming that make SAH Archipedia a trusted online resource available to all who value the history of place, heritage tourism, and learning.