I've recounted the history of the First Baptist Church in Durham in detail here. The church decided to move from its N. Mangum St. location during the 1920s and construct a larger sanctuary on Cleveland St. Although Cleveland St. was a residential neighborhood of large well-appointed houses, it appears that there was a previous Primitive Baptist mission located at or near this site.
Rendering of the proposed new building, 1924.
The resulting large, neoclassical structure was completed in 1927.
Below, a clip from the H. Lee Waters films of Durham, showing kids playing and rollerskating in front of the church. In the northward-facing shots, you can see the Blackwell Markham house in the background.
Below, the facade as seen from Cleveland st., likely 1950s
View of the northeast portion of downtown ~1960, with First Baptist at the end of Chapel Hill St. Notice the surrounding residences.
(Courtesy Duke Archives)
An education building wing was added to the south side of the church in 1962.
Laying of the cornerstone for the First Baptist Church Education Building, 05.20.62
(Courtesy The Herald-Sun)
The loop and the conversion of the last block of East Chapel Hill St. into a parking lot have somewhat diminished the effect, but this building remains the best remaining terminating vista in downtown - from the moment you cross Five Points heading east on Chapel Hill St., you see this impressive building at the end of the road.
First Baptist Church, 2006
First Baptist is also likely the largest private landowner on east side of downtown, owning approximately two city blocks, the vast majority of which is parking.
Across that gulf of parking are the remaining houses of Cleveland St., in the Cleveland St. portion of the Cleveland-Holloway historic district. The big and beautiful houses that once surrounded First Baptist were demolished via urban renewal, the Loop, and by the church itself.
Rumor on the street is that the church is itching for new sanctuary. I don't know if they would plan to build it on their vacant block to the north or not. I would encourage them to think more broadly. It has been awhile since I've directly criticized churches on here - although Housing for New Hope arose somehow out of (and I may not have this right) First Presbyterian and St. Philips. But churches are often the last ones standing in an obliterated urban area, and accumulate large land holdings. Too often, they create large landscapes of surface parking that are little utilized outside of Sunday. At worst, they are, nationally, frequent agents of demolition of historic structures as they expand.
Building community, a mission for most churches, is a broader endeavor than fellowship among the people who drive to the church and providing charity. The physical environment surrounding churches is extremely important in determining the success of the surrounding neighborhood. What is needed on the majority of the big, nearly empty lot to the north of the current First Baptist sancturary is mixed-use (corner grocery + residences), mixed-income development that will reconnect the residential areas east of Roxboro (and the Holloway portion of the historic district) with those west (the Cleveland St. portion of the historic district, which connects to Little Five Points.) I hope that they will consider reconnecting community as part of their mission - not just packing in more people from afar on Sunday.