Cahaba (also spelled Cahawba), located between Selma and Orrville at the confluence of the Alabama and Cahaba Rivers, was once a thriving antebellum river town and it served as Alabama’s first permanent state capital from 1819-1826. It became a ghost town shortly after the Civil War. Today it is an important archaeological site and a place of picturesque ruins. The site is now home of the Old Cahawba Archaeological Park.
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church was originally built in Cahaba on Vine Street near the intersection of Vine and 1st South Street. Construction began on the church in 1852 and it was completed and consecrated on May 14, 1854. St. Luke’s is a small, Gothic Revival style church that was constructed using designs prepared by the New York architect, Richard Upjohn. Exterior features of the building include lancet windows, pointed arch doorways, and vertical board and batten sheathing. The building originally had a square bell tower on the corner to the left of the current main front entrance, but this was not rebuilt when the church was later relocated to Martin’s Station.
St. Luke’s was built during Cahaba’s antebellum boom years. Following the post-war decline of Cahaba, the church was dismantled in 1878 and moved 15 miles to the community of Martin’s Station where it continued to serve an Episcopal congregation for several decades. St. Luke’s was then used by an African-American Baptist congregation for over 60 years before being acquired by the Alabama Historical Commission.
During 2006-2008, architecture students from Auburn’s Rural Studio dismantled the church and brought it home to Cahaba. It was reassembled near the corner of Beech Street and Capitol Street, across the street from the Old Cahawba Archaeological Park visitor center. The new location was chosen because the original location on Vine Street was in a floodplain. The majority of the original timbers was saved and used, including the 50′ heavy timber buttressed arches. Some of the original wood had rotted considerably over the years and students replaced it with oversight from the Alabama Historical Society and Cahawba Advisory Committee.
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church was photographed and documented in the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) during March 1934. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) on March 25, 1982.
Today, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church is a part of the Old Cahawba Archaeological Park. For additional details, including directions to the park, visit PreserveALA.org/OldCahawba.
Sources: 1) Wikipedia; 2) NRHP “St. Luke’s Episcopal Church” Nomination Form; 3) The Alabama Catalog, A Guide to the Early Architecture of the State, by Robert Gamble.
B&W photographs courtesy of the US Library of Congress (HABS), photographer: W. N. Manning, Date: March 17, 1934 & March 23, 1934.