Tag Archives: church

the South Site

I don’t want to harp on the icky stadium issue (New Atlanta Stadium to cost $1.2 billion, however, when N and I biked through there recently it got me thinking about what was in this area before.

friendship church atl
The Georgia Dome (c.1992) behind Mt. Vernon Baptist peeking out from behind Friendship Baptist Church on Mitchell St., Atlanta

To make way for the new Falcons stadium on the “south site,” two historic African-American churches will be demolished. The Friendship Baptist Church congregation dates its founding to 1862, and began construction of the current sanctuary in 1871. It shows up, on the corner of Mitchell St. and Haynes (removed in the 1990s for Friendship’s expansion after the areas roads were compromised by the construction of the Georgia Dome) and sharing a block with commercial and residential buildings, in the 1949 aerials below (bottom-most yellow square).

Mt. Vernon Baptist Church began in 1959 and still retains it’s mid-century sanctuary. Mt. Vernon was built at the intersection of Hunter (now MLK) and Haynes, a fragment of which still exists for now, on the 1949 aerials the lots appear to be empty (yellow block just below the Georgia Dome), and across Haynes St from the long back wall of an industrial rail yard.

On the edge of what we now call Vine City, this area was home to the African-American elite of Atlanta in the mid-20th century. It had long been home to African-American institutions like Morehouse and Spelman. In the 20th-century Vine City was home to Atlanta’s business and later Civil Rights leaders—Martin Luther King, Jr.’s family lived out there as did Alonzo Herndon, a leader in the business community. Friendship’s role in this community was strong, they even claim to have housed the earliest classes of Morehouse and Spelman and certainly contributed to the raising of Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, whose father, Maynard, Sr., was pastor from 1945-1953.

So, to really picture this neighborhood before the Georgia Dome, I’m turning to some old maps (1949 aerials):


In 1949, the neighborhood west of the future Georgia Dome was primarily residential, packed tight on unpaved streets and alleys. The Dome itself sits halfway on the industrial yard that was east of Mt. Vernon, the rest of the World Congress Center and Philips Arena are located on what were once residential streets north of the industrial yard and between rail lines that once led to Terminal and Union stations. Commercial buildings lined Mitchell and the former Hunter St. which were entry points to the west side of Atlanta, only a few blocks from Terminal Station (bottom left purple block). Terminal Station was demolished in 1971-72, apparently beyond the reach of the preservationists who rallied to save the Fox a few years later and I wonder sometimes if my 18-year-old dad first entered Atlanta from under that arched colonnade, one of its last passengers.

Friendship Baptist then, constructed in 1871, saw the whole westside grow up around it. And though its location today feels adrift in a sea of redirected (mis-directed?) streets, parking lots and fences but its position in the community was anchored by this once-prominent location on Mitchell. No doubt the Mt. Vernon congregation felt they’d come across prime property too when they built in the 1950s just behind Friendship.

Today’s aerial view is full of holes, a widened Northside Dr. adds to the expanse of pavement here, blocks full of homes and shops that were not overlaid with oversized arenas have been redrawn with inward-looking housing projects or parking lots. There are many empty lots and fast food chains. There are a lot of fences. Imagine a downtown Atlanta street grid, walkable, human-scale, that marched westward from train tracks instead of a west side that’s been wiped clean of anything historic—except for Friendship Baptist Church. And now that, the root of so much Atlanta history, is about to be wiped clean too.

in search of salvation

Carswell Grove Baptist Church

In the recent Places in Peril nominations here at the Trust, there were 4 rural churches in need of salvation. Ironic? well, the stories were similar and all too familiar. Ward’s Chapel held it’s last service in 1991 after a dwindling congregation, most of whom have moved away, passed on, or become Jehovah’s witnesses. In Adairsville, the 1908 First Christian Church building “serves as an anchor” for the historic properties in that part of town but the congregation moved to a new sanctuary in 2002 only using this building for special occasions. At least they still use it and even have a church committee set up to monitor the building’s needs and repairs. Over in Jenkins County, a rural congregation abandoned their 1919 building when a new sanctuary was built in 2008 despite having received and used a Georgia Heritage Grant 10 years earlier significantly repair the roof and roof structures. Even though they salvaged the pews, and someone took the windows, there is still a hope of restoring the building itself. Only in Locust Grove was a nomination not abandoned. Georgia’s first Catholic church languishes from lack of funds but still holds a monthly service for the small congregation.

PIP churches 2014b

The big question though is what to do with these churches once they have been rehabilitated? Many have been abandoned as worship spaces, and are no longer needed as such, so they must be put to a new use. Some nominators expressed a hope to attract tourism to the area, or use as an event space, noble ideas, but when you’re in backwoods Georgia it’s hard to call them practical. We need new uses, people with an imagination, and still we’re not going to be able to save them all.

Like I said, it’s not a new phenomenon, just an ever growing one. flickr and facebook groups abound dedicated to rural and abandoned places of worship. There is something beautiful and sad in any abandoned building but churches, their symbolism and purity, the rites they’ve witnessed and represent, are particularly poignant in their dereliction. Weighty with meaning, with hope and heartbreak and love, they can grip our hearts as tightly as the vines that now scale their walls.

But enough poetry. What can we do with these buildings? I mean really??

Several old churches in the country and towns (like Athens) have been turned into residences. In Athens, I remember a former Episcopal church whose pews are cleared out for yoga, tai chi and community events. Here in Atlanta, churches rent their sanctuaries to bands for practice space and even, yes, now we’re talking, aerial dance and trapeze. D.A.I.R. Projects took over the historic Grant Park Methodist Church in 2007/08 it was perfect for their high-flying needs!

at DAIR, Atlanta

Oh shoot, I research while i write and it looks like my old friends at Mental Floss have beat me to the list of awesome—“11 New Uses for Old Churches”. Although sadly several of the best are not in the US including the skate park in England and the AMAZING library in the Netherlands. Hey now, could a Roller Derby league take over an abandoned church for the right price??

Monastic Moderne

is that what we should call this? we were walking around the courtyard of the new visitors center at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit when it came to us—the simplicity and cleanness of lines, the combination of new concrete (established as the signature construction material by the sanctuary itself), the old brick and warm wood, the materials somehow made soft the rigidly organized structure. Much as the constrained bonsais in the garden center, everything about the monastery is intentional, and yet it is organic. One feels appropriately quieted as you step from your car, especially, perhaps, on a gray rainy day when no one else is around.

But the abbey church is the real centerpiece, emerging, unexpectedly—and ungrand-ly—around a corner.

unassuming (front entrance) Untitled

The church was built by the first troupe of trappist monks who moved to this remote spot in Conyers, Ga, from Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky in 1944. It took 15 years for them to complete the church, the simplistic of Gothic structures, concrete ribs hold up a wooden ceiling and concrete walls frame the most beautiful modern stain-glass pieces. It glows blue and purple in the soaring empty sanctuary. Timeless simplicity leaves little to be dated save a few small details: the formica upstairs, sixties-modern steel stair rail, and pattern of the scored brick in the balcony. According to the website (which is wonderfully informative), this church holds the distinction of being the only abbey church built by its monks.

“The architecture of the church reflects an interior reality,” symbolic in form, design, and orientation, it is, as are other traditional churches and cathedrals, a symbol of man’s relation to God, a sanctuary for prayer and contemplation and an architectural embodiment of the kind of life being led at the monastery itself, and the direction our own spiritual lives should take. Architecture and the monastery are intimately related, the one reflecting and guiding the other. (read more here)

Mostly I couldn’t stop thinking that Dad would’ve loved this place. It seems to embody his ideals, his beliefs, and his style. Walking back to the car in the rain I noticed the newly planted shrubbery along the walk was a long line of blueberry bushes.
every detail.