The City of Anniston, Alabama was founded following the War for Southern Independence by two wealthy entrepenuers, General Daniel Tyler and Samuel Noble, near the site of their fledgling ironworks, Woodstock Iron Company. Production started in 1873 when it was necessary to bring skilled workers from England to work in the new venture.
The Tyler and Nobles families were both Episcopalians as were many of the executives that came from England to manage the new company. In 1881, the two men decided that it was time to build a church to serve the growing number of families working in the ironworks. Grace Episcopal Church was completed in the fall of 1885 with its first service being held on Christmas Eve of that year. Grace was built on the residential side of the booming little city and was intended to serve the two founders, their executives and their friends.
Designed by prominent architect George Upjohn, the church is based on a small stone church that General Tyler had admired while a cadet at West Point. The interior was constructed of cedar and brass to emulate Solomon’s Temple which carried out the desires of Samuel Noble. The results are outstanding.
The interior construction was assigned to a group of European artisans and the wood work in the Nave and Altar area show the influence of English shipbuilders of the period. The cedar wood work is warm and inviting and is in near perfect condition, the result of a constant care and maintenance. In 1985, a Second Century fund raising campaign set up funds to ensure perpetual care for the structure.
The growth of the City of Anniston in the late 19th century resulted in the number of those wishing to attend services in Grace Church to exceed the building’s capacity and another Episcopal Church was soon to be needed. Again the Noble family was in the forefront of this new campaign. Samuel Noble’s son, John Ward Noble petitioned the Episcopal Bishop of Alabama for permission to establish a second parish in the Anniston area, and on June 11, 1888 ground was broken to build the Church of St. Michael and All Angels.
The site for the new parish was chosen to be central to the working class men and their families that worked at the Ironworks. The famous architect, William Halsey Wood, who had been a finalist to design the Cathedral of St. John the Devine in New York City, was employed by Noble to design the church. Wood’s design was heavily influenced by the Norman era churches of the Noble’s native Cornwall in England.
Local materials, including sandstone were fashioned by two English masons to provide the basic construction of the church and its attending buildings. The master masons hand fitted every stone in all of the buildings and the walls surrounding the church site. Oak and long leafed pine was chosen for the interior and again English shipbuilders were employed to do the work which included a depiction of the Ark in the nave ceiling. Bavarian craftsmen, working from scaffolding, carved the decorative symbols and figures, including the angel’s heads that decorate the ends of the hammer beams facing the altar. The altar is a massive twelve foot piece of pure white Carrara marble and the screen behind the altar is made of brick, faced with alabaster. Both the marble and the alabaster were imported from Italy. The floor of the chancel and sanctuary are made of Alabama marble, but the tiles that decorate the nave and cloisters were imported from England.
Saint Michael and All Angels is a treasure trove of American stained glass and are all original to the 1880 time period. All but two of the magnificent windows were crafted by J&R Lamb and Co. of New York City. The other two are original works of the famous Tiffany studio and are considered to be priceless.
These two Alabama churches allow a visitor to experience examples of 19th century craftsmanship at its very highest level. Grace Church is a little gem of the shipbuilder’s art and Saint Michael and All Angels is a trip to a small Cathedral without making the journey to Europe. Both are worth a trip to Anniston to see and together they are a must do.
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