Athens Musicians Unite to Save the R.E.M. Steeple

Music Features Athens
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For an Athens landmark, the St. Mary’s steeple is battered. If you didn’t know what it meant, you might even want to tear it down.

Undeniably, the structure is old—it’s one of Athens’ oldest buildings, built at the end of the 19th century. It’s also tiny because so much of it has been knocked down already. It feels even smaller on the inside. The floor space is about 64 square feet, so it’s hard to imagine more than a few people comfortably standing inside.

But at the same time, the space holds an energy of greatness and talent. Thirty years ago, the steeple—and what surrounded it—was a sign of possibility. It represented the beginning of R.E.M.’s career and Athens’ growing cultural scene.

It’s a piece of what was, but it’s also a reminder of what it can still become.

Yes, the steeple is old and small, but it’s too important to Athens. And so, the local lovers of music and history aren’t going to let it die.

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Athens nonprofit Nuci’s Space has initiated a campaign among Athens musicians to save the steeple. Actually, the team is now a little larger than that—a number of volunteers have joined, and the network of Athens-based musicians involved with the project has expanded to include R.E.M., The B-52s, Pylon, Widespread Panic, Drive-By Truckers, of Montreal, Elf Power, Neutral Milk Hotel and T. Hardy Morris, so the project is bound to get some attention. “They’re more than just people,” said Marc Tissenbaum, the project manager at Nuci’s. “They reach the world and represent the community so well.”

The campaign is an example of what Athens does best, which is caring. Communally, Athens feels like a village. Everyone knows one another and is eager to help. Combined with the fervor of Athens musicians, “It’s really hard to not like this project,” Tissenbaum said. “We’re really representing every band that has been a big band in Athens going back 35, 40 years now.”

The next step was to involve people outside of Athens. The team is launching an Indiegogo campaign to bring fans of Athens and Athens bands to help. On November 3, the campaign will officially kick off. And in an similar spirit, everyone is willing to help.

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The building that once surrounded the steeple had a long and complex history, even before the ‘80s. Before Athens was known for music or even the University of Georgia, it was a mill town. Robert Bloomfield, who owned an Athens manufacturing company, wanted to create a place where his workers could worship. St. Mary’s Protestant Episcopal Church was completed in 1871, and was only a church for about 20 years—since then, the building has housed a Red Cross office, a museum and apartments. It even acted as a temporary church for other institutions.

“The steeple has always meant, ‘I’m here. I’m downtown,’ and I love that,” Tissenbaum said.

In the ‘80s, St. Mary’s became a squatter’s house and famously housed R.E.M.’s first show. From that moment, the building symbolized an era of creativity and possibility.

But if St. Mary’s has always been appreciated, then what led to its current state? Time.

It’s been 143 years since St. Mary’s was completed. Most of the church was torn down in 1990, when a student apartment community—aptly named Steeplechase—moved in next door.

“The church was in such a bad state,” said Bob Sleppy, the executive director of Nuci’s Space. “There was enough uproar at the time to save what they could, and that was the steeple.”

The apartment complex held on to the steeple, but never put any money into it for upkeep. Over the next two decades, it deteriorated.

Downtown and the music scene were symbiotic. In 1981, the Georgia Square Mall opened, leading to the relocation of department stores and leaving downtown dead. The rent became cheap—Tissenbaum paid $20 a month for his room—and gave artists and locally owned businesses the opportunity to move in.

“There were all these people to help you realize anything you wanted to do, and the sense of community was unbelievable,” he said.

Athens’ music scene was actually created out of UGA’s art school. The earlier musicians were artists who used music as a medium. The creators of Athens migrated back downtown.

Today, Nuci’s Space literally stands in the steeple’s shadow. The non-profit center was founded in 2000 as a constructive response to a local musician’s suicide, and offers services ranging from counseling to instrument rentals.

“I can’t imagine getting paid to work for an organization that is so good, that does so many wonderful things for people that I know and love,” Tissenbaum said.

As an institution that serves the local musical community, Nuci’s is an appropriate platform to seek the steeple’s preservation. The center has aided a number of musicians, and now it’s working to save a musical landmark. Symbolically, it all fits.

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In 2011, a series of adjacent fires brought the steeple’s condition to public attention. City officials stopped by with a message: “You either need to repair it, or you need to bring it down.”

Steeplechase approached Nuci’s space and asked if they would take responsibility. Over the next few years, the nonprofit and the complex negotiated, and Nuci’s Space officially took ownership of the steeple in April 2013, and thanks to a donor, it still stands.

The committee is currently deciding how to transform the steeple. Options include a meditative space with a small, nearby outdoor stage. Essentially, they want to preserve the steeple’s history and fit Nuci’s message of support to musicians in the same space. An acknowledgement would be present at the site recognizing everyone who helped, and the renovated steeple would also feature a historic marker explaining why Athens preserved it.

Because it wasn’t just a place where a successful band got its start. The steeple symbolizes the creative and collaborative nature of Athens itself—it’s a beacon, a pillar of welcome. It immediately greets those approaching downtown.

Whatever the steeple becomes, it’ll be exciting.

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Starting with its launch today, Tissenbaum is confident in the campaign because people do love R.E.M., they do love the steeple and and they love Nuci’s space.

“Athens is a community where you feel like it has your back. People will roll up their sleeves and work beside you on a project. People will hold you close and shower you with the love and attention you need if you’re having emotional problems,” Tissenbaum said. “People just help each other here.”

You can visit the Indiegogo campaign to save the R.E.M. steeple here.

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