Nuci's Space Rescues R.E.M. Steeple
The remains of the church where the Grammy-winning band was born was once in danger of destruction.
More than 30 years ago, an unnamed band of kids played their first gig in a reportedly haunted and crumbling church on a sloped hill in Athens, Ga. The shy lead singer rarely faced the audience, his floppy hair covering his face. They performed a collection of cover songs, including “I Can't Control Myself” by the Troggs and “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols and the party raged. One attendee said that things got so rowdy that you could see the floorboards part underneath the dancers' feet as they jumped up and down.
Besides the legendary stories, all that remains of that 144-year-old abandoned church is the steeple, which was in peril of being demolished. The spire is not sound and many thought it would topple at any moment without the aid of a wrecking crew. As of this week, however, the storied steeple was granted a reprieve and will be restored with the nonprofit group Nuci’s Space at the helm.
"We are assessing the damage to the steeple and not planning on knocking it down," said Bob Sleppy, executive director of Nuci's Space, a group that helps artists struggling with depression and other mental disorders.
Of course the repairs will cost a lot of money and so far an “anonymous donation from out of town” is taking care of the initial stabilization.
That group, by the way, went on to become Rock & Roll Hall of Famers R.E.M., and that party was for drummer Bill Berry's girlfriend's birthday. And though the supergroup has since dismantled and its members are now scattered about the United States, they remember their time in Athens with fondness.
“My first years in Athens, 1979 - 1983, were like living in rock and roll Valhalla,” said R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck. “It was a fun time. There was no competition between the bands for prestige gigs because there were none.”
Dubbed “townies” as they hung out downtown, the students and their friends took over opulent Victorian mansions and colorful shotguns; rent was typically $50 a month if they paid anything at all. Large wraparound porches were often outfitted with claw-foot tubs brimming with hunch punch spiked with grain alcohol, lots of it.
“The scene was small, maybe 150 people, but it managed to support a lot of great bands like the B-52s, Pylon, the Method Actors, Love Tractor, the Side Effects and R.E.M.” said Buck. “Everybody supported each other's bands and, best of all, the kids always came to dance.”
The townies rummaged through piles of clothing at the Potter’s House thrift store or sprang $3 for vintage cocktail dresses at Go Clothing to complete their party attire. And when the Georgia humidity took its toll, clothes were shed, as skinny-dipping (“Nightswimming”) was a regular occurrence.
Many of those homes fell into disrepair but have since been refurbished, and Athens is experiencing a cultural renaissance. There are new theaters, world-class restaurants and, of course, bars on every corner. The Athens-Clarke Foundation continues its work to preserve the Classic City’s historic structures. Every once in a while, if you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of a random pop star in town catching a show (or performing) at the 40 Watt Club. And now, that legendary church steeple will remain a permanent resident.
The History of the Steeple
Paul Butchart, a local resident who conducts tours on Athens music history, told us the complete history of the steeple.
Construction of Saint Mary's Episcopal Church began around 1870 and was built by Mr. Bloomfield, the owner of the Athens Manufacturing Company, for the moral and spiritual welfare of his employees. It was one of the first "10 houses of good worship" in Athens. After laying out the lines for the church, Mr. Bloomfield was called away, asking the masons to build the walls straight up until his return. Upon his return he found they had built the walls 20 feet tall with nary a door or window in them.
The first services were held on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1871, presided over by the Rev. Skinner out of Augusta, and the Rev. Lucas. St. Mary's Episcopal Church was named after Mrs. Mary Baxter, who passed away near the time of its construction. By 1910 the property was for sale along with an adjacent lot. For a while in the late '50s and early '60s it served as the home of the Athens-Clarke County Museum, showcasing many artifacts from the early years of Athens. In 1968 it was converted into a five-bedroom apartment by Marion Cartwright, who first leased it to law students attending UGA. It was then rented to Kathleen O’Brien of Atlanta, a friend of the aforementioned band.