By Stephen Herbert
The impious simile “hot as hell” really doesn’t apply to Talbotton, Georgia, in August. Not because it isn’t hot, but because hell’s heat can’t possibly be this humid. All those fires in the netherworld must dry the air out a little.
Your correspondent is standing in front of Zion Episcopal Church in Talbotton, having just tried a front door he knew would be locked, in spite of the cardinal virtue of hope. It was not just locked, incidentally, but locked with a hand-forged lock on a door original to this remarkable church, built around 1848.
A horsefly the size of a bus has been waiting for my arrival. As it descends from the darkness of the portico ceiling I decide to amble around the church, which is a remarkable example of rustic “Carpenter Gothic” architecture: easily the most remarkable in Georgia, not only for its design, but also for its location and context.
Talbotton is in a poor region. The economic boom that has blessed metro Atlanta and some other areas in Georgia has reduced the poverty rate in the state for the first time in decades, by a substantial 3%. Talbotton has missed that boom, as have many rural parts of the Piedmont of Georgia, the belt of farmland that was mythologized by a certain Book That Shall Not Be Named. Talbotton’s central streets are named for the first ten U.S. presidents, the sum total the country had inaugurated at the time of the town’s founding. A Harrison or Polk street is rare enough, but Talbotton may have the only Van Buren Street in Georgia.
In the 1840s, Talbotton was the frontier. The land had just been purchased from the Creek Indians who had wanted to leave, and wrested from those who did not. Offshoots of South Carolina planters came this way to invest their fortunes in Georgia’s frontier. Zion was built at some point at the end of the decade. The Diocese of Atlanta lists its consecration date as 1853, almost certainly a few years after its construction.
Talbotton is as far south and nearly as far west as one can go on Piedmont soil. It lies just north of the Fall Line, the border between the upland granite and clay lands of the Piedmont, and the sandy southern Coastal Plain. Some Georgians equate the Fall Line to the Gnat Line, north of which the little critters are not supposed to travel. Someone has not told Talbotton’s gnats that they are trespassing in north Georgia.
Back to Zion, and my gnat-accompanied perambulation. Your correspondent is not an architectural historian, but he knows a classy church when he sees one. Even an untrained eye can tell that the proportions and details of this church are Just Right, although a few details, like the “crenellated parapets” (quoth the National Register nomination) are looking a little raggedy.
Although apocryphal literature references Zion alongside the work of British neo-Gothic architect Richard Upjohn, it was almost certainly built before the 1852 publication of his book Upjohn’s Rural Architecture. South Carolina planters had fashionable and discriminating taste. Leaving moral judgments aside, if only for a moment, Zion demands that the observer conclude the following, whether we like it or not: antebellum Southern Episcopalians were aristocrats, and like all aristocrats, they had no tolerance for the second rate. They also had no tolerance for poverty, so when the land had exhausted its riches, they left — most often for Atlanta and the comfort of professions not tied to agrarian economics.
Poverty can be a worthy preserver of buildings, but only to a point. Zion’s exterior is at that point. The hellish heat and humidity of Georgia is tough on exteriors. An expensive and preservation-worthy re-roofing was done some years ago so that the usual slayers of buildings — gravity and water — have been kept at bay. The formidable lock and equally formidable horsefly are keeping me from the interior, but I’ve heard that for the moment it is safe.
On a visit more than a decade ago, I saw the interior, virtually unaltered. If you know organs, then you’ll appreciate that Zion’s is an original Pilcher, circa 1852. The roof beams are white cedar, the box pews, floor and walls are heart pine, and the pulpit is walnut, all from local forests. All the ironwork was locally forged. Also preserved is a moral rebuke in architectural form: a slave gallery supported by Tudor arched aisles. When I saw it, I thought of Psalm 137:
For there they that carried us away required of us a Song;
and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying
Sing us one of the Songs of Zion.
What does one do with a church like this, sited where history is as thick as the humid air? On my past visits the church seemed like an intact ruin. Like the Parthenon, the descendants of the builders were present, but seemed to have lost the religious narrative for the building’s existence. Few went near it, as though they were waiting for its inhabitants to return from some quasi-mythical past to take possession, and fill it with mysterious, unknown rites.
Now, at least, an enterprising group has taken custody of the church: Zion Restoration Group was formed earlier this year to raise the $200,000 necessary to restore the church exterior. My gnat-clouded eyes didn’t deceive me — the tower is beginning to lean; Zion Restoration has made its repair an urgent priority.
Earlier this year the Diocese of Atlanta generously deeded the church to the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, which, in turn, generously deeded it to Zion Restoration. The Georgia Trust maintains a conservation easement and is giving the Restoration Group valuable help and advice. Talbotton residents are involved as well, helping ensure that the church will remain a source of local pride rather than a neglected curiosity.
Zion Restoration Group has a Facebook page. Donations may be sent to David Jordan, Treasurer, PO Box 66, Talbotton GA 31827.
Stephen Herbert serves the church in rural Eastern Alabama.