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Athens, Georgia, Tries To Save Some of Its R.E.M. History

The church where the band played their first show is hardly standing, but renovation costs are steep.

Music fans in Athens, Georgia, had a bit of a freak-out yesterday, when demolition crews got to work on one of the town's most famous buildings.

The former St. Mary's Episcopal Church, built in the late 19th century by a major Reconstruction-era business leader, was the site of R.E.M.'s first show. It was reduced to a steeple decades ago, but even that has struggled to stay upright of late. Yesterday, crews took down a wall as part of a stabilization effort.

The steeple connects Athens to one of its most famous contributions to the world. R.E.M., then called Twisted Kites, played there on April 5, 1980, for a friend's birthday party. The show was so good, word has it, that they played the entire set twice. At the time, the former church was also where lead singer Michael Stipe and guitarist Peter Buck lived (it had been turned into a residence for artists).

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Yesterday, workers knocked down a non-load-bearing front wall damaged by a poison ivy vine. "Either we bring it down or it comes down it itself," current owner Bob Sleppy told the Athens Banner-Herald. "It was a safety issue." Vines had grown between layers of brick along the steeple, weakening its 143-year-old walls.

The church was partially demolished and replaced by condos in the early 1990s. A fire in a nearby building in 2010 further damaged the structure. Costly restoration estimates led condo association members to vote for its demolition in 2011, only to see the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation step in. The steeple's other neighbor, Nuci’s Space (a non-profit health and music resource center) acquired the troubled structure last April. 

A Google street-view look at the steeple (left).

Athens' ties to R.E.M. stretch further than just claiming the famous band as its own. Even as the group became internationally known, most of its members continued to live there. Stipe owning a popular restaurant and Buck (despite moving to Seattle) owned a music club. The band was even involved in local politics, helping progressive Gwen O'Looney narrowly defeat her conservative opposition to become mayor.

R.E.M. even drew tourists. Here's one fan's pilgrimage, as seen in this 2012 A.V. Club report:

The sacred sites of R.E.M.’s Athens, Georgia 

As for the steeple's future, Sleppy met with construction crews yesterday to plan out its rehabilitation. The goal for now is to simply keep it standing. Work so far has been financed by an anonymous, out-of-town donor, but the newly discovered poison ivy problem makes the restoration much more expensive. Just keeping the steeple upright will cost upwards of $25,000. The owners plan on putting together a fundraising event to secure the rest of the money needed.

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