YEMASSEE — The ruins of the nation’s first church built in a temple form have stood quietly in remote woods here for more than a century, but growing traffic is posing new threats.
It’s not just the greater numbers of cars and trucks whizzing by on Old Sheldon Church Road, but people walking around — and sometimes on top of — the bricks and grave markers that remain.
That’s why the church that cares for the ruins recently reached out to the Preservation Society of Charleston and the Clemson Restoration Institute to come up with a comprehensive plan for conserving what is left of the church building as well as its bucolic setting.
Kristopher King, the society’s executive director, said the study involved using cutting-edge technology, such as laser scans so detailed they can distinguish between different eras of mortar. The report will provide both advice and an important baseline as the site continues to suffer from graffiti, scratchiti, crumbling plaster, mold and even melted wax.
“We were really shocked that the condition has deteriorated notably in a short period of time,” King said. “This ruin is far more fragile than a typical structure. It’s getting wet on all six sides.”
High-tech eye on a low-tech building
What is left of Sheldon Church stands in some woods about a 25-minute drive north of Beaufort.
Its remote location adds to the ambiance that has drawn a growing number of people, though there are no official counts. There is no caretaker on site or system of docents or anyone tracking unauthorized use, vandalism or safety concerns.
Bill Sammons, a member of St. Helena Church in Beaufort, has led the volunteer effort to look after the property, which has a budget of only about $4,000 a year — money mostly spent on keeping the grass trimmed.
In recent years, he has seen a host of vandalism, such as spray-painted life-size figures over three of the walls, broken headstones and people carving into the soft brick.
“We have a constant battle with scratchiti, where they scratch their names in the bricks,” he said.
To understand how much deterioration is occurring — and how fast — the Preservation Society teamed up with architectural conservator Frances Ford and Clemson’s Warren Lasch Conservation Center to study the ruins’ existing condition.
Traditionally, this has meant making measured drawings or detailed photography, but those have their own limitations. Drawings lack color while photography often captures only two dimensions and would be hard to use to detect brick loss, for instance. They also can involve scaffolding and many hours of work.
Instead, the team used a Faro X330 scanning system — a high-tech digital scanning camera that costs about $150,000 and reads within an accuracy of 2 millimeters. Its ability to measure red, green and blue values means that it can detect the most subtle color changes.
The crew positioned the camera over five days to collect 55 scans of both the ruins’ interior and exterior — images that were combined into a single 3-D model.
“Every different mortar campaign has a slightly different color to it, and the camera can see that,” King said.
The camera scans also saved a large amount of time and money because there was no need to erect scaffolding so conservators could examine the brick and mortar up close.
“The use of that technology is incredibly exciting,” King said. “We think it’s got a lot of applicability to other sites,” particularly fragile ones.
The images were compiled into a report that not only will give the ruins’ caretakers an accurate picture of its current state but also will help them measure changes over time.
“We had days where we would come out there and there would be brand-new graffiti,” King said. “People think it’s a public park and that they have a personal ownership and think, ‘I can do what I want.’ ”
Other threats in the big picture
The study of the church ruins grew out of an effort to preserve the rural land around them.
Steve Gavel, who owns one of a handful of nearby plantations, has offered to move power lines from Old Sheldon Road onto his property to make the road more scenic and quiet.
“We’re really trying to preserve a whole environment, a whole area, both historic and natural,” he said. “The biggest issue is the planning issue of how that part of northern Beaufort County is going to be managed.”
Gavel is concerned about the greater traffic volume, which appears to stem from people using the road to get between rural areas, such as Hampton County, and jobs in Beaufort County.
The speeding traffic threatens those visiting Sheldon Church because visitors must park across the street, then cross the increasingly busy road.
“People go around 70 (mph) there, but it’s not meant to be 70,” he said, adding the speed limit is 40 mph. “It’s just a matter of time until someone gets hit.”
Bill Sammons, a volunteer with St. Helena Church, has helped look after the ruins for about 16 years.
“We are concerned about the increased activity there,” he said. “We haven’t quite figured out what we’re going to do about that yet.”
The church has two long-term goals: to minimize the impact of human activity on the site but also to harness the public’s interest in it to raise more money for its ongoing care.
The report, which will be presented to church leaders early next month, recommends reaching these goals in part through the following: removing it from Google Maps; adding fencing and periodically closing it to reinforce the reality that it’s not a public park; adding signs to explain that it’s a consecrated, private site; creating a plan to encourage online donations and to explore raising money from special events; and creating a nonprofit to help support it.
A separate set of recommendations advised how to conserve the ruins from insects, improper repairs where more modern mortar threatens the soft bricks, failing plaster and vandalism, as well as damage from trees, ferns and mold.
Some might wonder why the fuss about preserving ruins with only four brick columns and four walls, but Old Sheldon Church is one of the nation’s earliest and grandest religious buildings.
Sheldon was first built between 1745 and 1753, slightly before St. Michael’s Church — downtown Charleston’s oldest surviving church building.
The church’s National Register of Historic Places nomination says Sheldon “is said to be the first conscious attempt in America to imitate a Greek temple.”
Architectural historian Calder Loth of Virginia said he is always wary of absolutes, “but I think you can claim that Sheldon Church is the earliest known temple-form church in America.”
It was built about a century after architect Inigo Jones designed St. Paul’s Covent Garden in London, which broke dramatically from England’s traditional ecclesiastical architecture to that point because St. Paul’s took the form of a Tuscan temple.
“The use of a pagan architectural form for a church was a reaction against Catholicism, which was getting into Baroque-style churches as part of the Counter-Reformation,” Loth said.
Loth said the style is more like a Roman temple.
The Roman temple form — combined with a steeple — was used by many American churches, as with St. Michael’s, Charleston, most all of which are based on James Gibbs’ published illustrations of St. Martin in the Fields.
“Sheldon Church was certainly a strikingly sophisticated work of architecture for its time and place,” Loth said. “I’m sorry it was ruined.”
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