The History of Steeples
Here's the Church, Here's the Steeple…
A primer on choosing the right one for you
In the United States, churches and steeples are almost inseparable. "Just as we associate shapes with items such as stop signs, the Coca-Cola® bottle, the Nike® swoosh, or the Red Cross®, so too the shape of a steeple represents the church," says Douglas Caudle, president of Piedmont Fiberglass in Mooresville, North Carolina.
They are inspiring, but they don't necessarily serve any practical architectural purpose. So for the curious, all these steeples beg the question: Where did the idea come from? Steeples have been associated with churches for a long time, but how long?
The spire originated in the twelfth century, but America's steeples are descended from those designed by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London in 1666. The fire began early on September 2, not far from the famed London Bridge, and spread quickly, overtaking everything in its path. Over four days the conflagration destroyed most of the city. Many famous buildings, including St. Paul's Cathedral and 86 other churches (not to mention more than 13,000 homes), were destroyed, and the city smoldered for months.
The task of rebuilding many of these houses of worship fell to Wren, a young architect. Noted for his Oxford background as a mathematician and astronomer, Wren was commissioned by King Charles II to rebuild St. Paul's Cathedral. In his design of St. Paul's and about 50 other city churches he included steeples, leading men and women to turn their gaze toward God in his heavens.
Wren's simple, straightforward treatment of the steeple quickly caught on. They were increasingly found on American churches, often with bells built in the tops. These bells served dual purposes, calling worshipers to services and summoning citizens for special announcements or emergencies. Early American steeples were usually made of wood.
Today most congregations have replaced their wooden steeples, which were showing the effects of time and weather, with beautifully designed steeples made from lightweight fiberglass or metal. Fiberglass has become the more common material to use, prompting some companies to look to high-end boat makers for ideas on developing new and better products, says Rick Vernon, owner of High Point, North Carolina's L. Vernon and Company, a supplier of all-fiberglass steeples.
In terms of size and shape, steeples are as varied as the church buildings they accentuate. But even in their variety, steeples still serve their traditional purpose—to guide people's eyes toward the heavens, to God himself.
"A steeple points one to the heavens, symbol of the dwelling place of Christ. Through city streets, across the valleys and lakes, through the countryside far and wide, the steeple declares Christ," says Jerry Bennett of Campbellsville Industries, a leading manufacturer of modern and reproduction metal steeples. Campbellsville Industries in Campbellsville, Kentucky, manufactured the world's tallest steeple, a 229-foot structure atop First Baptist Church of Huntsville, Alabama.
Selecting a Steeple
Steeple style. Larry Lydick of Fiberglass Specialties in Henderson, Texas, the world's largest producer of fiberglass steeples, outlines several church architectural styles and offers steeple styles to match.
Traditional church buildings are usually rectangular-shaped with a steep-pitch roof. Cupolas, small roof structures with a domed ceiling, or small steeples with a tall spire best accent this style.
Popular since the 1960s, church buildings with contemporary design are usually dramatic in appearance. They require a dramatic steeple. Otherwise, this feature will get lost in the building's other elements.
Churches in the Colonial, Federal, and Georgian styles of architecture are dominated by large columns and extensive detail moldings. Choose a steeple that repeats these features.
Utilitarian church buildings usually have flat or low-pitch roofs to maximize floor space in relation to cost. Simple steeples and spires without bases or detailing should be selected.
Some churches resemble the one-room schoolhouses built in the nineteenth century. A simple spire with a small base usually works best on these structures. Some churches will want to have a bell, which requires a wider base with vents to allow sound to penetrate to the outside. Make sure the base will allow the movement of the bell on the fulcrum.
Steeple size. Virginia Barnes of Steeples, Etc., in Birmingham, Alabama, says proportion is a key element when considering what size steeple you will need to complement your church building. Her suggestion is that the steeple should be about the same height as the distance from the ground to the ridge of your building, and the steeple's base should be approximately one-tenth the width of the building. Many manufacturers offer computer-aided design to help deal with these issues.
Wind load, or the speed of wind an object can withstand before it's damaged. While most steeples are designed to sustain 100-mile-per-hour winds, churches within 50 miles of the coast should have extra bracing. According to Allen McDade of Wiedemann Church Products in Muscatine, Iowa, their Deluxe Steeple models can withstand winds up to 150 miles per hour, the highest performance rating on the market. These seamless-construction steeples also come with a 15-year warranty.
Lightning protection. Although fiberglass will not conduct electricity, lightning can follow water down the side of a steeple into a building. Sometimes a stainless steel or aluminum cross, with a rod inside leading to a ground connection, can be installed. Of course, a lighting rod also can be used. This is a minor cost compared to replacing an entire church!
The gel coat. The outer paint used on a fiberglass steeple, referred to as the gel coat or color coat, comes in different grades. A steeple should have an LE-grade gel coat, which is high in styrene to resist yellowing from ultraviolet radiation. While the traditional steeple color is white, any color can be used, and fiberglass steeples never need repainting.
Price. Many models are reasonably priced, starting at under $1,000, and can be easily installed by skilled church members for an additional savings.
A Modern Application
While church building styles are always changing, steeples continue to mark a place as a house of worship. That's unlikely to change, making a steeple a worthwhile investment for any congregation.
Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today,
Inc./Your Church magazine. Used with permission
of the author.
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