SIXTEENTH STREET BAPTIST CHURCH GETS A LIFT

SIXTEENTH STREET BAPTIST CHURCH GETS A LIFT

Welborn, Aaron

EVERY YEAR NEW BUILDINGS are added to the roster of our state’s endangered historical properdes, and every year some of those buildings are torn down or irreparably ruined. This year, in conjunction with our annual feature on Alabama’s Places in Peril, we wanted to share a preservation success story-a story with much to say about the importance of maintaining our architectural heritage, and about the power of community involvement. It is a story almost a century in the making.

Most readers will be familiar with Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Bapdst Church, if only by reputation. One of the city’s oldest historically black churches, it was first organized in 1873 as the First Colored Baptist Church of Birmingham. The present structure was completed in 1911 under the direction of Wallace Augustus Rayfield, Alabama’s first traditionally trained African-American architect. Throughout the fifties and sixties, the church served as a popular gathering spot for Civil Rights leaders and activists.

Then on Sunday, September 15, 1963, the church underwent a violent transformation. The story of that day is well known. At 10:22 in the morning, a bomb wracked the church’s east side, killing four girls-Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson-and wounding twenty-three others. The blast marked a turning point in the Civil Rights era and transformed this imposing, Romanesque edifice into one of the most potent symbols of the struggle for racial justice in the South. Following the bombing, donations poured in from around the world to help repair the damaged building, which reopened its doors the following June, the same month Congress passed the Civil Rights Act.

Today the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church looks much the same, both inside and out, as it did forty-two years ago. Despite a renovation to the upper floor twelve years ago, the building has scarcely been updated and lacks many modem features. The original plumbing and electrical systems, though no longer up to code, are still in operation. Frequently used door and window fixtures have long been in need of repair. There is not even a single smoke alarm in the building. Worst of all, long-term moisture and drainage problems threaten the very foundations of this historic structure.

All that is starting to change, however. Thanks to careful planning and a successful fundraising campaign, the church is now in the beginning stages of a three-year restoration program. It all started in January 2004, during the second inauguration ceremony of Birmingham mayor Bernard Kincaid, which was held at the church. While attending that event, Birmingham-Southern College Chancellor Dr. Neil Berte was given a tour of the building by a church member, who pointed out several places downstairs where groundwater was leaking through the foundation walls. The problem had to do not so much with the effects of the bombing nearly four decades ago as with poor drainage both in and around the building. Recognizing the serious threat such leakage posed to the integrity of the structure, Berte determined to act. “This is sacred ground,” he said in a recent interview. “We cannot let this building deteriorate any further.”

Berte turned to colleague and long-time church member Carolyn McKinstry for help. A survivor of the 1963 bombing, McKinstry had served the church in many capacities over the years. She was church secretary at a mere fourteen years old-the age she was when the bomb exploded-and her responsibilities had only increased since then. Together, Berte and McKinstry organized a steering committee to come up with a plan of action. The committee’s first step was to seek expert advice. In the spring of 2004, they asked Dick Pigford of ArchitectureWorks, Felix Drennen of Brice Building, and preservation architect Jack Pyburn of OJP Architects to collaborate on a detailed inspection of the building and report back on what needed to be done and how much it would cost. The initial report revealed damage more extensive than anyone had assumed. In addition to the drainage problems downstairs, cracks were spreading throughout the building’s exterior masonry. The roof needed replacing, numerous doors and windows had to be repaired, and an outdated heating and air conditioning system was creating serious moisture problems inside. The cost to fix everything: $3.8 million.

Berte and McKinstry put the steering committee immediately to work. Their goal was to raise three million dollars locally, with the rest of the funds coming from national and outside sources, such as grants. It was a tall order, but everyone agreed-it had to be done. McKinstry recalls, “Over the years, people had visited the church and said to me, ‘Give me a call if you ever need anything.’ They didn’t realize I remembered that. I had written every one of their names down in a tablet, and I started calling them.” Each member of the committee began calling friends and colleagues. No prospect was ruled out. Basketball legend and Alabama native Charles Barkley pledged fifty thousand dollars. As donations began to arrive in greater and greater amounts, the committee hired a secretary to handle all the mail, deposit the money, keep records, and send letters of thanks. At the time of this writing, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Preservation Campaign had raised over $3.2 million in cash and promises, of which almost half was already in hand. It was enough to begin the restoration. A groundbreaking ceremony was held on June 9,2005, and the ArchitectureWorks-Brice-OJP restoration team got to work.

The project will be completed in two separate phases. Phase One, which began this summer, seeks to stabilize and restore the building’s foundation walls, redesign the building’s drainage system to prevent further water damage, and repair the structure’s roof and two towers. This work will take the better part of a year, after which Phase Two will begin, repairing cracks in the exterior masonry, resealing doors and windows, removing hazardous materials such as asbestos, replacing the church’s heating and air-conditioning system, and generally bringing the whole interior up to code. Meanwhile, the restoration team will be working closely with die Alabama Historical Commission to ensure that all work is completed in a manner that maintains the building’s historical integrity, using materials that would be appropriate to Wallace Augustus Rayfield’s original design. As part of this effort to preserve the historical look and feel of the church, a “Historic Structures Report” will serve as a complete record of all refurbishme4nts and will be used as a tool in all future decisions regarding building improvements. After Phase Two is completed (tentatively scheduled for early 2007), all remaining funds will be deposited in a trust, the interest from which will provide for the church’s maintenance in perpetuity. All of this work will improve the structure not only for the benefit of the church’s two-hundred-member congregation, but for the over two hundred thousand tourists who visit the historic site every year.

If all goes well, there will be one more thing to celebrate this fall. Last April, McKinstry met with members of the National Historic Landmark Committee in Washington, D.C., where a proposal carried unanimously to recommend that the U.S. Department of the Interior recognize the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church as an official National Historic Landmark. “I’ve seen Birmingham come a long way,” McKinstry remarked. With any luck-and with appropriate care-her church will see it go much further still.

Aaron Welborn is an assistant editor at Alabama Heritage. Brittani Tingle contributed to this article.

Copyright University of Alabama Press Fall 2005

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