R.E.M. Steeple Threatened

The now-famous band R.E.M. played their very first show at St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Athens, Ga., on April 5, 1980. Thirty-one years later, all that remains of that building is a deteriorating steeple in the parking lot of a condominium complex.

Earlier this month, after a nearby building caught fire, the city ordered the Steeplechase Condominium Association, which owns the spire, to "either restore the steeple or take it down," says Amber Eskew, historic preservation planner for Athens-Clarke County. The association voted to demolish the historic icon.

The Steeplechase condos were built in 1990, but the owners promised to retain the steeple while tearing down the rest of the former church. Though it might be eligible for a historic designation, one has never been sought, Eskew says.

St. Mary's was originally built in 1869, and the steeple has been neglected for more than 20 years. Repairing the steeple's roof alone could cost between $16,000 and $20,000, "but that's just a Band-Aid," says Jeff Montgomery, media analyst for Athens-Clarke county and operator of Athensmusic.net. "We have no idea how much it will cost to restore it—it depends on how much work will be done."

The City of Athens is looking into possible adaptive re-uses for the remnant of the church, but the size—roughly a 10-foot-wide base and 40-foot-tall spire—make it difficult. "Obviously, it's a bit of an unusual piece of a historic property," says Amy Kissane, the executive director of the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation. "I like to think of it as the world's largest historic marker, and it's certainly worth preserving, considering how important the musical heritage is to Athens."

Steeplechase Condominium Association has consistently been open to working with the Athens community and R.E.M. fans. "No application for demolition has been submitted, yet," Eskew says. Since the steeple is more than 50 years old, a demolition application must go through a review process with the mayor and two city commissioners before a permit is issued.

"Even though they voted to demolish it, it doesn't necessarily mean it will be," Montgomery says. "I don't think it's a bad thing that it's come to this. It's a catalyst to decide, one way or another."

Kissane agrees that the threat may spur action. "Now, with demolition threatened, it's kind of now or never to fundraise and see if the community wants to support preserving it."

Some locals think that R.E.M. should buy the steeple, but Montgomery won't be the one to approach the musicians. "Would you buy a monument to yourself? The way it functions now is as a historic marker, a large one. Moving it is not really an option, so at this point we either repair or construct something else."

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