Traditional Building Portfolio




Updating Gothic Revival

Freemason Street Baptist Church, Norfolk, VA

Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Company, Norfolk, VA; Gregory L. Rutledge, AIA, design principal, Yvonne Zhang, AIA, project manager

By Annabel Hsin

In 1848, a fledgling congregation in downtown Norfolk, VA, commissioned Thomas U. Walter, the architect of the U.S. Capitol dome, to design a Gothic Revival-styled sanctuary church. The Freemason Street Baptist Church features a soaring steeple, stucco rendered over masonry, pointed-arched doorways and windows, as well as buttresses surpassing the roofline capped with decorative pressed-metal pinnacles. Throughout the late-19th and -20th centuries, several additions were built to accommodate the growing congregation. However, with the exception of a small Gothic-styled office on the east side, the additions were unsympathetic to Walter's design and lacked planning in terms of circulation. This was the most recent dilemma posed to Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Company, also based in Norfolk.

During its sesquicentennial, the church committee first approached Hanbury Evans to restore the front façade of the historic church, including the steeple. "The project became ten years worth of work," says Gregory L. Rutledge, design principal. "We slowly restored the entire exterior of the building and then moved inside."

During the steeple restoration, a piece of wall covered by an addition from the 1890s revealed that the original color of the stucco was brownstone red, rather than the existing stark white with brown trim. The color was confirmed with additional renderings by Walter, who also designed an identical church in Shanghai, China. These two churches were the only design duplications throughout his career.

"Our intent was to restore the stucco," says Rutledge. "We selected distinct areas of stucco to try to clean. But even with a garden hose of minimum water pressure, the stucco washed right off the building. It was in terrible shape. We had to formulate a special mix of stucco to apply it directly onto the historic masonry and it was done by Cathedral Stone [of Hanover, MD]."

Following the exterior restoration, the focus moved to the sanctuary. "Everybody liked the image of the sanctuary," says Rutledge. "We decided to retain its existing ambiance rather than revert to earlier periods, of which there was evidence. For example, there was stencil work from a Victorian decoration of the early 1900s that was discovered behind the pipe organ. The existing sanctuary was really heavy and dark so we made some minor changes in the paint scheme to lighten it up."

Most recently, the design firm was challenged to create order from the hodgepodge of additions, which had resulted in an awkward circulation pattern. For instance, there was no way to move from one end of the complex to the other without going through either the sanctuary or the fellowship hall. The complex was also inconveniently organized – Melton Hall, built in 1958 as a Sunday School wing, was located on the east side of the front elevation while the church offices were located at the rear, behind the sanctuary. "One of our major goals was to reorganize the circulation through the church to make it clear and so one could get to all the major spaces without crossing another," says Rutledge. "That way the church could use the spaces whenever they wanted or close them off to run the complex much more efficiently."

In the 1960s, a re-urbanization effort resulted in the demolition of many buildings, including those surrounding the complex. For three decades, the church stood out in the middle of a big open space with a wall of unconcealed rough brick at its rear. As a result, the location of the new William Hall addition, north of the complex, necessitated a fourth façade.

"They also wanted to make the church more inviting to daily visitors," says Rutledge. "They are in an area downtown that is exploding with new housing and this was an opportunity for them to outreach to the community with new worship spaces, classrooms and plans for new ministries."

A new master plan was designed with a courtyard space functioning as the complex's central feature. Adjacent cloisters frame the courtyard to create a cross-shaped circulation pattern. The courtyard, a meditation garden and columbarium, is located on the east side to ensure that natural lighting in the sanctuary is unobstructed during services. The enclosed western cloister features stained glass salvaged from a previous restoration of the sanctuary windows. A barrel-vaulted arcade and plaster arches with Gothic details, fabricated by Hayles and Howe of Baltimore, MD, leads to the newly renovated kitchen and Melton Hall, which houses the church offices on the first floor and classrooms above.

"I believe in the Secretary of the Interior's Standards, which suggest that the new addition should differentiate itself from the historic structure and still be compatible," says Rutledge. "This project uses sympathetic materials and vocabulary of elements but it's not replicating pieces that are on the old building. For instance, our buttresses don't pierce the roofline and they are not capped in pinnacles but in stone. It's a simple, more modern interpretation of Gothic Revival."

The northwest corner of the new addition incorporates a salvaged piece of wall from the 1890s addition that was an exact replica of Walter's exterior – the interior was left exposed to display its historic fabric. Adjacent to the salvaged wall, the north façade features understated Gothic elements. The cast stone pinnacle caps are a lighter shade to complement banding details found on the original building. The entrance opens to a three-story tower with pointed arched stained-glass windows and a crenellated parapet. The interior includes a chapel, a library paneled in red oak, a music suite, additional classrooms and a new central mechanical plant.

"The chapel is a departure from anything else in the building," says Rutledge. "The sanctuary is a very formal worship space and the chapel is a total counterpart to that. The chapel has exposed timber wood framing and simple paneling. I don't want to say it's an informal space because it's designed on axis with the sanctuary and ties right in with the fellowship hall, but it's small, intimate with a whole different look and that's what we were going for."

The timber framing in the chapel was fabricated by Powhatan, VA-based Dreaming Creek Architectural Timber Framing. Other key suppliers included Norfolk, VA-based Armstrong Welding and Repair (decorative iron work); Virginia Beach, VA-based Premier Millwork (interior woodwork, custom doors and windows); also based in Virginia Beach, Architectural Stained Glass; Norfolk, VA-based Roof Engineering (slate roofing); and Virginia Beach, VA-based Ocean Plastering (stucco for the new addition).

After a decade of careful planning and construction, the exterior restoration, interior renovations and the north addition were completed in the spring of 2009. "I think this project is extraordinarily successful and the congregation is very pleased," says Rutledge. "A lot of folks comment on how it looks like it's always been there, which to me is a really nice compliment." TB



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