The Chrysler Building enjoyed just shy of a calendar year as the tallest building in New York. It was supplanted after eleven months by the Empire State Building, what many of us think of as the essential big city skyscraper.
In Beaufort, it’s the churches that rise above the rest. Community Bible Church owns the Parris Island Gateway vista. Lady’s Island is dotted by both Sea Island Presbyterian and St. Peter’s Catholic right across the highway.
Downtown, however, the view of various masts and docks is highlighted by two structures that don’t move with the tides. One, the green steeple of the Parish Church of St. Helena, is undoubtedly older than the Baptist Church of Beaufort’s white spire, but its reign as the tallest downtown structure ended in 1962.
Or did it?
The facts in the case are few.
The Parish Church steeple was erected in 1942 and rises to a height of 118 feet from the ground. Its green color is distinct, though the choice seems to have been made out of conformity with other church colors rather than a desire to be eternally picturesque.
It actually replaced an earlier steeple that was taken down post-Civil War, in 1866, because it was structurally unsound. It was the one major change to a church building that has remained largely intact since 1842, when renovations were completed that enlarged the original 1724 building.
The Baptist Church of Beaufort’s steeple, meanwhile, is listed as being 128 feet high, though that includes the spire and weather vane. Built on-site over a three-week period in 1962, people from all over downtown came to watch the crane lift it in to place when it was ready that July.
But is that 128-foot height really a solid 10 feet higher than the Parish Church steeple?
Here’s where it gets murky.
There are certainly Baptists who believe St. Helena is higher because the building itself sits a little higher off the ground.
There are Parish Church members who believe the Baptist Church is higher because the steeple is slightly taller.
There are probably some who are naturally less objective.
Making it even murkier is the age old story – likely apocryphal – that the donor who paid for the Baptist steeple stipulated that it be the highest. It’s hard to find that documented, but whenever it was brought up in the presence of Dr. George Jones, the Baptist pastor in 1962, all he would do was wink.
The greater question is — when you get out of the murkiness of the foundational beginnings and into the present — does it matter which is higher?
Both steeples – like heaven itself – are accessible but not easily ascended. They’re both the focal point of plenty of local paintings and represent the same holy aspirations and significance. You can’t really take a panoramic shot of one without including the other.
It really depends on perspective. Coming across the Richard V. Woods Memorial Bridge last week, my 9 year-old asked me about the height difference. I remember asking my parents the same question.
I never got a straight answer and still can’t give one.
Maybe not knowing for sure is all the answer we really need.
Ryan Copeland is a Beaufort native. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.