The iconic Pawleys Island Chapel moves back home to sturdier ground
With one end dangling from a heavy-duty crane, the small white chapel creaked and cracked as it swayed in the brisk breeze of the chilly March day.
“Oh, please be careful,” an onlooker uttered, capturing the sentiment of all those gathered to watch this historic moment.
Crews were moving the Pawleys Island Chapel—a landmark of this “arrogantly shabby” coastal town—across the street and back into the creek where it’s been a welcoming icon for tourists and residents for 70 years.
The building needed a new foundation. The only way to build one was to remove the quaint chapel, move it to the empty lot across Myrtle Avenue for the work to be done, then move it back to its new foundation of 35 pilings, arranged in five neat rows—a much sturdier foundation than the hurricane-battered 18 pilings that had been keeping the chapel above the water.
Over the buzz of the crane—a special one brought in after the initial ones couldn’t do the job—a dozen or so workers helped guide the precious cargo onto its newly built foundation. With the back of the church lifted, the front was wheeled across Myrtle Avenue. Clusters of town residents and visitors clutched cell phone cameras capturing the historic moment, trying to help ensure the chapel’s safe return by releasing pleas with each heart-wrenching pop or sway.
“Oh, please don’t crack,” said Karen Spillane, a Summerville resident who has a house on the island.
Going to these measures to ensure the chapel remains tells you just what this little white building means to this island town. The building, at only 50 feet long and 24 feet wide, holds a maximum of 200 people. But it holds limitless memories.
Ask about the chapel, and folks say they got married there (or their niece, best friend’s daughter or cousin did). Or they remember going to church there as a kid, the windows always open because there was no air conditioning. Or they just get that feeling of being home, being in a special place, when they see that iconic white building as they cross the causeway.
“Great thing about this chapel is it means so much to so many people,” said Betsy Altman, a partner/broker with Pawleys Island Realty Co., who books the weddings in the chapel.
The memories made from the church services, the weddings, the christenings and memorial services. The business conducted there, too; the Pawleys Island Civic Association met there dating back to the 1970s. And the Pawleys Island Town Council has been using the chapel as its meeting spot until the new Town Hall is built after the previous Town Hall flooded during Hurricane Matthew.
But the chapel may be best known for its Sunday services, with an island twist.
The chapel is the island’s spot for Sunday church during the summer (from the first Sunday in June through the last Sunday in August), but the church doesn’t have its own pastor. Instead, the non-denominational service is led each Sunday by either a local or visiting preacher, a different one each week. Vocalists and musicians step up to offer the music. Residents and visitors ride their bikes or walk to the service, never knowing who might be in town that they’ll run into that particular week. Some Sundays, so many folks show up the congregation overflows to the porch outside, listening to the sermon through speakers.
“It’s also a Sunday social event,” Pawleys Island Mayor Jimmy Braswell said. “Everybody who is here goes and you see people you haven’t seen in a while and you reconnect. It’s somewhat like being back at home.”
Summer residents and locals have supported the little chapel through the years, not only by attending the Sunday services but by donating money, Bibles, cushioned chairs and furnishings as memorials or honorariums.
“The community just loves it. It’s so full in the summer. Everybody on the island goes,” said Kim Conder, an artist and jewelry designer whose work is inspired by her Pawleys Island roots. Conder remembers going to church services when she was a young girl. The windows were always open because there was no air conditioning. She remembers one time when a man played a Cat Stevens song on a guitar.
“I just thought that was so cool,” said Conder, who still calls Pawleys Island home.
Like other churches, the chapel also hosts its share of weddings—nearly 50 a year, sometimes two a day during the busy wedding season. The first recorded wedding there was in 1971, according to a history of the chapel by Pawleys Island Realty Co.
Connie Garland of Darlington knew she would get married in the chapel the moment she saw it for the first time as she and her soon-to-be-husband, Shawn, drove by on the way to the beach more than a decade ago.
“We just happened to go through Pawleys Island one day and saw the church and I said, ‘That’s it. That’s it,’” Connie Garland said. “It’s just a small, beautiful old church. It couldn’t have been any better…There’s just something special about that church. From the first time we saw it we fell in love with it. It just draws you there.”
The wedding was perfect, Garland said. She remembers walking down the aisle on April 21, 2007—escorted by her 3-year-old nephew (her father had passed away)—wearing a flowing, beachy gown with sequins on the straps. It was the quaint, intimate setting for the ceremony she hoped for, with a backdrop on the water that just couldn’t have been any better, she said.
The Garlands try to make it back to Pawleys every year to visit the special little chapel. But they also look at it every day: an art gallery photo of it hangs prominently in the foyer of the Garlands’ home.
“I just couldn’t imagine Pawleys Island without it,” Connie Garland said. “Every time you go to church there you feel like you’ve come out of there with a blessing.”
AN IMPORTANT LITTLE CHURCH
The chapel, formally known as the Pawleys Island House of Worship, has been a staple on the island since 1947. The building was a vacated Pentecostal Holiness Church in Georgetown that was dismantled and rebuilt on the island lot. A number of religious groups have used it throughout the years, starting with the Georgetown Layman’s Evangelistic Club. Club member J.M Layton, a summer resident on the island, took care of the chapel, with ministers taking care of the Sunday services.
In 1970, Layton retired. He sold his real estate firm to Linwood Altman (it would later become known as Pawleys Island Realty Co., which now handles the event booking for the chapel). Altman agreed to take responsibility for the chapel as part of the deal. Today, a local board of trustees oversees it.
The chapel has survived a number of hurricanes during its existence, including the hard-hitting Hazel in 1954. But it was Hurricane Hugo in 1989 that caused severe damage. The community rallied behind its battered icon, with several hundred people and the Pawleys Island Rotary financing the repairs, according to the Realty company’s history.
“This little church is really so important to everybody over here,” said Jimmy McCants, a member of the board of trustees that oversees the chapel. “It’s sort of a gathering spot for any special occasion.”
SAVING AN ICON
Now, on this chilly March day, all those memories are swaying in the breeze as crews move the chapel to its new foundation.
“It just looks so precarious at that angle,” Betsy Altman said, the chapel’s back hoisted in the air.
The temporary move was the only way to ensure the chapel remains. Either repair what you can with it sitting in the creek or rebuild from scratch adhering to today’s stricter building codes, which would never allow it in its current configuration. Enter this option: temporarily move the chapel, fix the foundation, then move it back.
“It was something we knew had to be done,” Braswell said. “For this thing to remain, it had to be done.”
McCants declined to say how much the move and new foundation cost, but said, “we are fortunate enough to be able to afford it.”
Worth every penny, said Lee Talbot, who was staying on the island and watched the move that March day.
“Just pick it up and sit it down on the other side of the road—it’s amazing,” Talbot said. “It’s probably a bit expensive but it’s historically valuable. It’s worth it.”
On February 26, crews moved the chapel across the street to an empty lot, where the chapel would sit while the new foundation was being built. Folks who didn’t catch word of what was happening frantically approached McCants: “What are you doing to my chapel?” McCants recalled.
Even temporarily, the island icon’s absence from its usual, highly-visible spot just didn’t feel right.
“It’s a landmark. It was weird coming across the causeway and not seeing it,” Karen Spillane said.
After 10 days, with the new foundation ready, crews again used the crane to hoist the chapel up and settle it back into its usual spot—though the new foundation is a foot higher than the previous one to help protect the building from flooding caused by those pesky king tides.
Andy and Janie Bell, who were out riding their bikes, were among those who stopped to watch the guys work.
“I’m always thrilled when you can save something historic,” said Janie Bell, sitting on the steps of a nearby dock. “There’s just something special about holding on to the old stuff.”
As crews set the chapel on the new foundation, the gathering of residents and visitors let out a sigh of relief.
“Everybody’s heart would have dropped if something had happened to that church,” said Connie Garland, who lives in Darlington and got updates on the move via the news and Facebook. “It’s just a little sanctuary.”
Even though it was sitting on the new foundation, the work wasn’t quite done; workers in waders were in the water circling the building to ensure it was sitting just right. Crews would have to return to replace some wood along the building’s bottom here and there—collateral damage from the move—and rebuild the porch and ramp to the front door. There was no time to waste as a wedding was scheduled nine days later.
That wedding went off without a hitch. And pretty soon, just like they’ve done as long as anybody can remember, locals and visitors will start riding their bikes or walking to those summer Sunday church services at the chapel.
“We are just happy that it’s back,” Braswell said. “Now we feel a little more secure about it.”
Contributing photographers Vicky Stroupe, Charles Slate. Images by Heidi, Anne and Dawn Bryant