Reconstruction-era church shows artistry of past

One of the great sins of our time is that the artistry evident among talented skilled laborers of yesteryear – talents which once could be found in the best  blacksmiths, carpenters and brick masons – is largely a thing of the past.

Progress has brought with it machinery that can produce fabricated metal at a rate 25 or 50 times what a skilled smith could turn out a century ago.

Carpenters armed with power saws and nail guns can put up a sizeable house in a matter of weeks, compared to months or longer many decades ago; and today’s home has far more amenities, to be certain.

Brick structures, too, are erected quickly and efficiently.

And today’s trades, with their emphasis on alacrity, have meant less outlay for consumers, when adjusted for inflation.

But the gains we’ve realized in convenience, speed and cost haven’t come without a price:

  • Metal bought from home-improvement stores, for example, can be of a lesser quality, weaker and more brittle, than what was once hand-crafted;
  • All but today’s top-of-the-line houses lack the craftsmanship that was a regular feature in many mid-range homes up until at least World War II, when the art of carpentry began to be supplanted by the need for massive amounts of construction on short notice; and
  • Rare today is the structure built completely of brick. The few with any brick at all often have nothing more than a brick veneer and lack the creative flourishes that made many a building a testament to the talents of those who built it.

Consider brick masonry for a moment. It was for centuries a stable trade that valued workers who prized craftsmanship. Today, brickwork is limited to that which can be done the quickest for lowest cost. Indeed, Flemish bonds, barrel vaults and circular arches are largely a lost art among brick masons.

To get an idea of what’s been lost, take a walk around any city with buildings more than 100 years old, and look at the intricate designs found in the brickwork.

French arches, cornice molding and rowlocks can all be found in edifices of all sorts, some of which were of the most pedestrian type when constructed.

Today, one would likely have to scour bricklaying unions around the nation to find even a handful of aging masons able to so much as recall how such ornamentation was done, never mind actually do it themselves.

The photos in this post were taken at the Ebenezer Lutheran Chapel in Columbia, SC. The church was started in 1830 and burned by Federal troops in 1865, in the waning months of the War Between the States.

It was rebuilt in 1870, and the congregation eventually moved next door to a larger structure in 1931.

The older building was retained for Sunday School, and was refurbished in the 1990s.

The brickwork, while perhaps of a common quality for its time, is stunning. It’s unclear how many masons it took to rebuild the church, but they clearly were a talented group who took great pride in their profession.

Ebenezer Lutheran Chapel is unusual only in that it has survived the depredations of time. But many similar beautifully crafted structures remain throughout our nation’s architectural terrain – in bustling big cities and languid small towns, in calcifying Rustbelt communities and reborn Southern hamlets.

Alongside the glass and steel and siding of today’s modern architecture, works such as Ebenezer Lutheran bear witness to an age and time when the term “artist” extended beyond the easel and sketch pad, and included now-forgotten craftsmen who left indelible reminders of their talent each time they placed brick on mortar.

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