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Education and Visitor Center Under Way for 16th Street Baptist Church

Martin Luther King, Jr. – responding to the bomb in 1963 that killed four young girls before a Sunday service at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham – sent a telegram to Alabama’s segregationist Gov. George Wallace, stating point-blank: “The blood of our little children is on your hands.”

Founded in 1873, the 16th Street Baptist Church served as headquarters for civil rights meetings and rallies in the early 1960s, and was so vital to the community that it earned the nickname “Everybody’s Church.” The bombing, among other acts of racial violence in the city, led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. The church is within the Birmingham Civil Rights District that encompasses about four city blocks in downtown Birmingham, once identified as the most segregated city in the United States.

A 13,000-square-foot visitor and education center is being designed by CCR Architecture & Interiors and will be located adjacent to the existing parsonage and sanctuary buildings. Rather than copy its architectural characteristics, the design of the center instead is meant to honor and complement the historic church, while serving the needs of the Civil Rights District. Design Review Committee member Cheryl Morgan deemed the visitor’s center design “very respectful” of the church.

Space will be provided for interfaith initiatives, community outreach and educational programming, and the center will include meeting rooms, a dining area, a commercial kitchen, and additional space for visitors.

“The new visitor center pays homage to the original residential neighborhood previously located beside the church building, while also blending with surrounding commercial building civil rights structures,” explains CCR Vice President Roman Gary.

“Thus, the massing of the visitor center features three projected brick facades to mimic the scale of residential, detached homes on the site, with recessed dark facades in between to hide the fact that the visitor center is a single connected building. The height of the visitor center visually continues the residential height of the church parsonage to express the contrast of historic church buildings being taller and support buildings being lower in height.”

Additionally, the design includes a horizontal eyebrow canopy between the first and second stories to symbolize a residential porch height, bringing the building down to pedestrian scale, Gary continues. Lastly, he says, exterior masonry materials at the first-story are darker to complement the darker stone on the first-story of the adjacent church building.  Earth tone masonry colors on the second-story complement the second-story masonry on the church building, parsonage and surrounding civil rights structures.

The congregation started a $7.5 million capital campaign to fund the visitors center. The money will also be used to create an endowment to maintain and preserve the church building, and fund initiatives to support the community. Gary says the church plans to start construction at the latter half of the year.

“This new building addition will symbolize the movement from ‘a dark past’ to a new light of hope and vision for the entire community,” says the church’s pastor, the Rev. Arthur Price. Jr. “We are committed to preserving this important legacy and continuing the fight for social justice and equality for all people.”

*Article Written by Jessica Armstrong and Images Courtesy of CCR Architecture & Interiors

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