Friday, August 9, 2013

Learning from Friendship Baptist Church

Courtesy of  Bita Honarvar, Atlanta Journal Constitution
The latest news on the matter of Atlanta's new retractable roof stadium (evidently a must for any modern city), is that Friendship Baptist Church has agreed to sell its property for just under $20 million.  Established in 1862, the church is one of the oldest congregations in Atlanta. The earliest services are said to have been held in a boxcar. The church building was built in the early 1870s (or 1880s, as sources vary) with renovations in the 1940s and 1970s (and presumably more recently, according to interior photos). The church is reputed to be the first independent black Baptist congregation in the city. Whether or not this is the case, the church is rooted in many of Atlanta's prominent African American institutions (or more accurately, they are rooted in the church). The fledgling box-car congregation of the 1860s is said to have shared it's home with a small, African American school that became Atlanta University, which later consolidated with Clark University to become the present Clark Atlanta University. In 1879, the Augusta Theological Institute moved to Atlanta, where it was renamed the Atlanta Baptist Seminary and held classes in the basement of Friendship Baptist Church; this seminary would eventually become Morehouse College. Only two years later, Spelman College also had its start in the church basement as the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary. The stories the basement of this building alone could tell of Atlanta's early African American heritage is astounding. In 1945, Maynard Jackson, Sr. moved his family from Texas to become the pastor of Friendship Baptist Church; his son (by the same name) would become Atlanta's first African American mayor in 1973 and, as such, the first African American mayor of a major southern city. 

Sophia B. Packard & Harriet E. Giles founded Atlanta Baptist
Female Seminary in the basement of Friendship Baptist Church
(Courtesy of Spelman College Archives).
So, there is no question of the significance of this property to he history of post-Civil War Atlanta ~ and yes, catch your breath ~ contrary to popular interpretations, Atlanta's history did not end when the rebel yell was silenced. But that's a discussion for another day. 

Architecturally, Friendship Baptist Church represents a type identified by the Georgia Historic Preservation Division as a "Double Tower Church", so-called for the projecting corner towers at the building's facade. The interior of the church was known for its stained glass and a prominent pipe organ, installed in the 1960s and later expanded in a major renovation in recent years; such an instrument was rare in African American baptist churches from the time and place of this one. Unfortunately, I have failed to locate any historic images to determine whether or not it retains historic integrity. The shape and form of this church could well match an 1890s church of this type, but the skin does not; the exterior surfacing and photos of the interior resemble construction materials and methods as recent as the last ten years. Without a proper assessment of the building, it is difficult to say whether or not it would merit listing in the National Register of Historic Places or preservation as a local landmark.

Pipe Organ following renovation (Courtesy of A.E. Schlueter Pipe Organ Company).

This church has been discussed entirely as a religious institution with a congregation of less than 500 (which, to my surprise, has been called small). The media has consistently reported on its history, but there has been no discussion of the building as an historic resource; except, it seems, for the Atlanta Preservation Center (APC). In a brief statement on their blog, the APC touted their efforts to preserve the area of this resource in the past, through a landmark district designation and a Civil Rights Trail, then deplored the project managers for not affording the "preservation community" an opportunity to participate in initial planning on this project. The APC has done a lot for this city over the years, but in this instance, their view reflects a major obstacle in historic preservation. Reactive preservation is an old concept; that is, the notion that the loss of a resource is entirely on the heads of the developers, who didn't provide the preservationists an opportunity to weigh in. In the world of social media, there is always an opportunity to weigh in. The potential locations for the highly publicized project have been discussed in the media since as early as the April 2011; the two principal sites being a short distance north and south of the Georgia Dome in Vine City. When a resource is laid to waste, we, as members of the community and advocates for preservation, always share in the responsibility for its loss.

The larger issue to be gleaned from this experience is that the preservation community in Atlanta has not been operating effectively as a community. While there is a large population of preservation-minded individuals, they are scattered  and insular like the many distinct communities that together are referred to as "Atlanta" by outsiders; they possess many common interests, but collectively lack the cohesion to effect lasting change on the matter of preservation planning (or even to be recognized as an actual demographic by policy leaders). We are less a community than an assemblage, at times. It has always been my impression that what this community needs is proactive leadership to guide efforts; but perhaps what we really need is a central means of communication. An active forum, where causes can be announced, knowledge can be shared, and initiatives can be organized. 

With the fall of Friendship Baptist Church, the City of Atlanta and the Atlanta Falcons come a big step closer to obtaining their retractable-roof stadium, apparently designed to resemble a cross between Superman's Fortress of Solitude and one no-nonsense species of starfish (see proposed designs, at left, courtesy of the Atlanta Falcons).  

A neighboring church remains in the path of their development and negotiations with that church continue. Should they also sell, then Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed's vision will be realized ~ at least, that of the stadium's construction. Whether this will be the impetus for change he envisions, only time can tell. 

While the media has emphasized the history of this congregation, it is important to note that the history is not lost with the building. Those stories and lessons from our past continue (as long as we share them). But it's that sense of place and continuity with the past that only exists in the material fabric of history that is lost with an historic place. Atlanta should know this better than any place. The stories can always be told, but no African American child will ever walk through the basement of Friendship Baptist Church and experience the atmosphere of a place that was the setting of significant strides in the advancement of his predecessors in Atlanta. Stories pale in comparison to experiences. Historic signage (not that any has been proposed in this case), the popular grave marker of heritage, does little to convey the importance of places and nothing to foster a sense of continuity with the past. 

As discussed, this church is rich in history, but little is known about whether the building itself is worthy of preservation. Typically, only buildings that are determined to be historically significant and to have historic integrity (which is determined by the degree of retention of these seven aspects) are considered worthy of preservation efforts (though it's always a shame to see a perfectly good building go to waste). Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned from this experience. The most important lesson is for the preservation community. To effect change in the treatment of heritage resources in our area, we need to come together now and often in order to share ideas, activities, and efforts; so that such developments will not go unmitigated without consideration for the places we value, and so that we will not be overlooked as a valuable demographic by our policy makers (one that spans all ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds). Our interests may not always be solicited on these matters, but they should always be heard.

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