39 Meeting Street — St. Michael’s first rectory
By Peg Eastman
By 1750, Charles Town was a flourishing colony, and the Church of England shared in its growth. It was not only the state-supported religious authority; it also performed other functions such as overseeing elections, disaster relief and aid to the poor. The church was run by lay officials known as “the vestry.”
St. Philip’s was the first Anglican church in the colony. The first church was made of black cypress and was located at the southeast corner of present-day Broad and Meeting streets. When the wooden building began to decay, the Commons House of Assembly authorized in 1711 the building of a new brick church located on what is now Church Street.
It was an extraordinary church. It had the first porticos with columns in the colonies, and it had the first tower. Pride of the city, it was completed in 1723. The Royal governor and the power-elite of the colony attended the church. By 1737, an assistant minister was hired to help perform the parochial duties.
By mid-century the Assembly found it necessary to divide the town into two parishes. The Act of Establishment passed June 14, 1751, was quite specific: the parish was to be south of the middle of Broad Street. It was to be called St. Michael’s. Nine prominent citizens were appointed commissioners to oversee the construction of the church and a rectory for its clergy.
The commissioners engaged Samuel Cardy to construct a building that was equal in design to St. Philip’s which had already won acclaim in London. So naturally, the plans called for multiple porticos, something that was scaled down later. The principal concern was money, and in the early stages of church construction few citizens were willing to contribute or purchase pews. However, by 1761 a vestry was installed; pews had been sold to subscribers and a minister had been obtained.
The new minister was given a rectory on Queen Street outside of the parish; it was apparently uninhabitable, and it is doubtful that he ever lived there. Consequently in 1765, the commissioners and vestry obtained permission to dispose of the Queen Street parsonage. After investigating several sites within the parish, they settled on a lot owned by Miles Brewton, present-day 39 Meeting Street. The location was ideal — just a few blocks from St. Michael’s on lower Meeting Street; cost £2700.
The following year, negotiations began for the new parsonage. It was to be three stories high, built of brick and boasted two stacks of chimneys, two flights of stairs with open brackets and bannisters and large windows to provide light, and six-panel doors. Behind the building was a one-story brick kitchen and wash house.
Wanting only the best, the vestry accepted the proposal of master builders Miller and Fullerton. John Fullerton was one of the “Liberty Tree boys” who met in 1766 to congratulate each other on the repeal of the Stamp Act. Miller is credited with building some of the best houses in Charles Town: the Edward Rutledge House and David Ramsay’s on Broad Street, the Ashe House at 32 South Battery. It took a year to complete the work. Predictably, there was a shortage of funds, and the Assembly had to be approached to cover part of the shortfall.
This impressive residence was the only rectory St. Michael’s ever built. The first minister was Robert Cooper (1731-1815), an Oxford alumnus. He was invited to St. Michael’s in 1761. He lived in the new rectory until he was dismissed July 2, 1776, because of his loyalty to the Crown. The Revolutionary government expelled him from the colony in 1777. Cooper returned in 1781 and served as rector of St. Philip’s while the city was occupied by the British. When the British evacuated in 1783, he went back to London.
The vacant rectory was rented during the uncertain times of the Revolution and afterwards. In 1803 the vestry decided the building should be sold. By then it had fallen into disrepair. A series of tenants occupied the building before it was sold to Dr. William Read in 1825. It was not until 1900 that St. Michael’s acquired another home for its rector on the corner of St. Michael’s Alley and Meeting Street.
There is a happy ending to the story. Dr. William Read (1753-1845) was the ideal person to acquire the ill-fated parsonage at 39 Meeting Street. He was a member of St. Michael’s Church and is buried in its churchyard. There is a memorial in the church that is a testimonial his character. It reads in part:
“A native of Christ Church Parish, South Carolina, [died] in the 92nd year of his age. He first served his country as a volunteer in the War of the American Revolution: And afterwards as a Deputy Surgeon General in the Army, under the immediate eye of General Washington ... As a Physician, he was skillful and benevolent; as a citizen, generous and public spirited and as a man he lived honored and respected by all … at the time of his decease he was President of the State Society of the Cincinnati … ” Dr. Read is buried in St. Michael’s churchyard.
Today, the former rectory has just undergone an extensive renovation. The front wall has been significantly remodeled and at the time of this writing, the historical marker has not been replaced.
My appreciation to Bubber Cockrell, St. Michael’s historian, and Robert Stockton for contributing to this article.
A Charlestonian by birth, Margaret (Peg) Middleton Rivers Eastman is actively involved in the preservation of Charleston’s rich cultural heritage. In addition to being a regular columnist for the Charleston Mercury she has published through McGraw Hill, The History Press, Evening Post Books, as well as in Carologue, a publication of the South Carolina Historical Society.