STATEBURG — The Rev. Tom Allen might want to cringe when he hears some people describe his Episcopal Church building.
“A lot of people, they call our church ‘the dirt church,’ ” he says. “Well, it’s not really the dirt church. It’s the brick church.”
Forgive people if they don’t get it just right. The Church of the Holy Cross is one of a kind among South Carolina churches.
That’s because it’s made of Pise de Terre, a fancy term for rammed earth.
The tiny community of Stateburg is set apart by a unique collection of buildings made from rammed earth, most notably the newly restored Church of the Holy Cross. Click here for a tour of the church and nearby Pise de Terre structures.
Its 2-foot-thick walls were erected in 1852 by using wooden forms to hold local clay as laborers, probably slaves, tamped it down with a special tool, forcing out the water.
Dr. W.W. Alexander, head of the church’s 19th century building committee at the time, had been experimenting successfully with this construction method at his plantation home just across the highway.
He convinced his other committee members that using Pise de Terre would give them more church for the money.
Walter Anderson, who currently lives in and maintains his family’s collection of Pise de Terre buildings across North Kings Highway from the church, says his great-great grandfather was influenced by the 1806 work “Rural Economy,” by S.W. Johnson, and began using rammed earth in the 1820s.
“When you look at some of the buildings around here, you can see a progression of his confidence in the material,” Anderson says.
For whatever reason — perhaps some thought it too crude or perhaps because of the loss of cheap slave labor after the Civil War — this type of construction didn’t spread far.
And that’s too bad in a sense, because time has proven that Pise holds up pretty well.
Of course, just about every other part of the Church of Holy Cross needed a significant renovation after termites were discovered in the sacristy in 2001.
Charleston architect Dan Beaman of Cummings & McCrady and Charleston engineer Craig Bennett with 4 SE, Inc. helped the congregation with a decade-long assessment and restoration.
The $1.6 million restoration, paid for in part with a $250,000 Save America’s Treasures grant, replaced major sections of the termite-damaged trusses and roof panels, as well as the floor panels. Termites also had dined on the base of the pews and original Henry Erben organ.
Beaman notes the Pise actually is only visible in a small cross-shaped section outside. The exterior is covered by a coarse layer of stucco, while the inside also is plastered.
The structural challenges included finding the extent of the termite damage and devising a way to keep the roof on the structure in heavy winds — since the earthen walls would make it difficult to strap on the roof.
Instead, the roof is secured because it’s made of the same heavy concrete tiles that likely replaced the original wooden tiles in the early 20th century.
Beaman says the first thing they told the contractor on the Holy Cross restoration was this: “You’re not going to touch the Pise.”
That’s because the rammed earth really is what makes this church unique.