Group Acquires R.E.M. Steeple, Hopes To Save It

Commuters heading into downtown Athens Monday possibly noticed some demolition at the R.E.M. steeple, the famed location of the band’s early practice and living space.

But the new owners of the steeple say there are no plans to demolish what has become an integral part of Athens’ music history.

“We are assessing the damage to the steeple and not planning on knocking it down,” said Bob Sleppy, executive director of Nuci’s Space, which now owns the historic landmark on Oconee Street.

Nuci’s Space acquired the steeple from its previous owners, Steeplechase Condominiums, earlier this year, Sleppy said. Nuci’s technically didn’t buy it, but received it as a gift from Steeplechase. The Steeplechase Condominium Association almost felled the structure in 2011, spurred on mostly by costly restoration estimates following a fire that destroyed a nearby building that also belonged to the original St. Mary’s Episcopal Church footprint, initially constructed in the late 1800s by Robert L. Bloomfield, one of post-Civil War business leaders in Athens. Athens-Clarke County ordered the association to either repair or demolish the steeple. At the time, repair estimates ran upwards of $150,000.

Workers knocked down a front wall facing Oconee Street that had been threatening to collapse on its own, Sleppy said.

“Either we bring it down or it comes down it itself,” he said. “It was a safety issue.”

Sleppy met Monday with Curtis Whitsel of Whitsel Construction, who renovated Nuci’s Space, and began to chart the steeple’s path to stabilization. One of the biggest threats to the steeple is a poison ivy vine that has grown between layers of brick, pushing through the mortar and weakening the walls. This structural dilemma was unknown until workers brought down that front wall.

“(The vine) is one of the reasons why that wall is standing,” Sleppy said.

Work on the steeple so far has been paid for through an anonymous donation from out-of-town, Sleppy said.

He figured the donation was enough to shore up, but not renovate, the steeple.

But the vine damage discovery has pushed the stabilization estimate higher. His estimate is $25,000, which would essentially leave the steeple visually unchanged.

Nuci’s Space is willing to invest in the project, Sleppy said, because they see it as a vital marker for Athens, and not just because of the R.E.M. connection.

“It’s an important structure,” he said.

The first and immediate goal is to stabilize the steeple, and they are half-way financially to being able to do so, Sleppy said.

To finish the job, though, they’ll “eventually have to reach out to the community to help us do this,” he said. “I don’t want to siphon funds from (Nuci’s) mission. We thought we would be good long-term stewards of the steeple, but the reality is we are not going to be able to do it alone.”