Circular Congregational Church and Parish House

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Circular Congregational Church and Parish House
Circular Congregational Church and Parish House is a church in Charleston, South Carolina. In 1804, the time had come to replace the Meeting Street house with a more commodious building. Martha Laurens Ramsay proposed a circular form and Robert Mills, Charleston’s leading architect who also designed the Washington Monument in D.C., completed the plans. The church he designed was a Pantheon-type building 88 feet in diameter with seven great doors and 26 windows. On its main floor and in the gallery it was said to accommodate 2,000 worshipers! The first major domed building in North America, it was described by one observer in 1818 as “ the most extraordinary building in the United States. ” Those walls of the splendid Circular Church were not long to stand. On December 11, 1861, a great fire started near the Cooper River. During the night, a “ hurricane of fire ” swept all the way across the city, leaving in its wake the ruins of Old Circular. The Civil War soon followed with its devastating effect. The black members of the church withdrew in 1867 to form the Plymouth Congregational Church. The psychology of defeat continued to demoralize the church for more than a decade, and it was a chastened and much reduced congregation that gathered the brick from the overgrown ruins of the great 1804 meeting house and erected a new sanctuary in 1890. Once again Circular Church raised the eyebrows of the establishment. The building they created from the ruins - our present meeting house - was a radical departure from traditional Charleston architecture. Its Romanesque style, quite modern in 1890, was inspired by Henry Hobart Richardson and designed by Stephenson and Greene of New York City. It bespeaks a spirit of nonconformity and high adventure in a church that was breathing life again. The building combines two powerful forms: the circle (the exterior plan), reminiscent of the former church and universal symbol of eternity and wholeness, and the Greek Cross (the interior plan), the Christian symbol of death and resurrection. For a century this worship space has moved the congregation gathered here to seek the wholeness and integrity of individuals, of the community of faith, and of civic life. The parish house portion, although apparently not the entire NRHP site, was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1973. The South Carolina Department of Archives and History summary is here. Today the Circular Congregational Church is an active congregation in the United Church of Christ. See also an artistic rendition of the main church building.