Sheldon Church would be at home in a Caspar David Friedrich painting, its Greek Temple–style ruins crumbling in the shadows of moss-laden oaks like an apparition of Romanticism. But it’s not on some forlorn hill in Europe; it’s nestled in South Carolina, and those Greek Revival columns are all that remain of one of the country’s earliest architecturally magnificent sacred spaces.
Over the years out in the elements, numerous visitors have carved their names into the church’s old bricks or taken bits away as souvenirs, so the Preservation Society of Charleston added the structure to their Seven to Save list. Now, thanks to 3D modeling done with drones and lasers, preservationists are analyzing how to protect the church so it can survive in its picturesque state of decay.
“What’s happened is, as more and more people are traveling to the Lowcountry and visitation is increasing, there’s been a growing concern for the wear and tear on the property,” Tim L. Condo, manager of preservation initiatives at the Preservation Society of Charleston, told Hyperallergic. “So when we were approached by some concerned folks from that community, we thought it would be a great project to have on our Seven to Save, our outreach program to identify and promote and raise awareness of historically significant structures at risk.”
Constructed between 1745–53 as Prince William’s Parish Church, the structure was destroyed in 1779, during the Revolutionary War, and rebuilt in 1825. The name “Sheldon” was a tribute to the Bull family, who originally donated the land — their plantation home was called Sheldon Hall. The church was wrecked again in the late 1860s, not by Sherman’s troops, as has long been legend, but more likely by looting from both locals and freedmen.
Its ruins sit right off the highway between Charleston and Savannah, and are still managed by the Parish Church of St. Helena. Partnering with conservators, the Preservation Society of Charleston recently carried out an assessment of them that included an extensive 3D rendering, right down to the carved graffiti. The group analyzed bad mortar patches on the bricks and flew quadcopter drones in order to capture and then stitch together aerial imagery. The model allows for a detailed look at all of the church’s corners and areas in need of stabilization.
“So we have a very comprehensive look at the entire ruin itself, and also the site,” Condo said, noting that the historic headstones and old trees alongside the church are also included. “The end goal for all this is to develop a comprehensive conservation plan for the site.”
This is just phase one of the plan. As part of it, the group has also produced a recommendation for site management and security to present to the church that manages the property. It would include signage to emphasize the site’s spiritual status.
“What we’ll hopefully see is the church implement these plans, and it will continue to be a sacred place,” Condo said.