Church works to preserve past as it expands

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 22, 2000

How do you preserve one of the most historic churches in the state while keeping up with the needs of a growing congregation? That was the dilemma for members of the Rose Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Natchez when planning an addition to the nearly 100-year-old building on Madison Street.

The addition, scheduled for construction in the coming year, will include space for offices, classrooms, a kitchen and a fellowship hall.

The challenge for church members was incorporating the addition while protecting the historic character of the original church building.

Email newsletter signup

Rose Hill Baptist Church was built in 1908 after a fire destroyed an earlier frame church building, but the congregation itself is much older and is considered to be the oldest black Baptist congregation in Mississippi.

According to deed records at the Adams County Courthouse, the First Baptist Church – then located on Wall Street – organized a separate chapel for black Baptists around 1837.

A deed transfer in 1858 gave them a separate building, but also indicates they were still considered members of the Wall Street Baptist Church.

Mimi Miller, Historic Natchez Foundation associate director, said the church is unusual because it is one of the few surviving antebellum black churches.

The building itself is also unique because the members have not only preserved the exterior, but the interior remains relatively the same as when it was first constructed, all the way down to the original pews.

&uot;If you open the door and walk in the sanctuary, it’s like walking into a museum of 1908,&uot; Miller said.

Miller said she is confident the members appreciate the history of the building and will do everything they can to preserve its character as they expand.

Johnny Waycaster, project architect, said he designed the addition to be have a minimal impact on the original structure both physically and visually.

To minimize the amount of wall to be removed from the sanctuary, Waycaster said the addition will be connected to the original building by a hallway located in the least decorative part of the room.

Also, the same brick color and pattern will be used to construct the addition, and recessed windows will hide overtly modern characteristics.

And plans for the addition call for it to be placed in the rear of the building so as not to distract from the bell-tower entrance, Waycaster said.

&uot;It’s a nice old building that very much deserves being preserved and protected,&uot; he said.

Shirley Wheatley, a church member, said she was initially opposed to the addition because she feared it would damage the historical integrity of the building.

Wheatley spoke against the addition at a Natchez Historic Preservation Commission meeting last month when the site plan was approved. Now, Wheatley said she is dealing with the addition with &uot;mixed emotions.&uot;

&uot;The church having the opportunity to have (the addition) is a blessing,&uot; she said. &uot;To me, it was sad they could not come up with some way of doing it without removing the wall.&uot;

Her concerns were later acknowledged by the church building committee and the architect, but would be &uot;too cost and time prohibitive to make any changes,&uot; Wheatley said.

Still, Wheatley said she has found some consolation in promises from the architect that a stained glass window that will be removed for the addition will be put to use elsewhere in the building.

The church is in the process now of raising funds for the construction project, which is estimated at $500,000.

But members hope to bring that price down by performing some of the work themselves, Waycaster said.