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First Baptist Church - Dalton - Georgia
By: Jennifer-Walker Journey

Many of the churches in downtown Dalton, Georgia, were following a trend of packing up and relocating to more residential neighborhoods. But, First Baptist Church had been positioned in the heart of downtown since 1847. Its leadership felt a great sense of need to remain there, so instead of joining fellow churches in a move across town, First Baptist focused on strategically planning for its future in its current location.

During the planning, church leadership clarified its core values and mission vision before turning to the ever-important question of, "Do our facilities align with our vision for our church?" The answer was obvious. The 50-year-old church building that had not undergone any major renovations since 1977 was due for some serious updating.

"Our primary driver for this project was the desperate need for 'community building spaces' that would create areas that invited parishioners to gather, converse, visit, and be conducive to building community," said First Baptist Pastor William G. Wilson. "In addition, aging space needed upgrades, parking and access questions needed to be addressed, youth and children space was antiquated, and administrative space was scattered across a large campus."

The gathering and fellowship spaces became an integral part of the projects from the beginning. The 1950s-era vestibules and foyers were extremely small and confining.

"Narrow hallways were the order of the day," Pastor Wilson said. "Movement through the building was akin to 'cattle chutes' leading people into and out of worship and other gatherings."

With its vision in place, First Baptist was ready to move forward with developing its master plan. The preliminary strategic planning proved priceless, Pastor Wilson said, because it "enabled us to remain focused on our desired outcome and meant we did not waver significantly from our original vision."

For the master planning, First Baptist hired TurnerBatson Architects, P.C., located in Birmingham, Alabama. TurnerBatson designed a five-phase master plan to meet the specific needs of the church.

"The plan was designed to reflect a warm, welcoming outreach and to allow consolidated ministries and security throughout the campus," said Dave Reese, president of TurnerBatson.

The phases included a complete renovation to the 900-seat sanctuary and the fellowship hall, as well as conversion of the space beneath the fellowship hall to a new youth area. Issues such as parking and access were addressed, and infrastructure additions, such as a new mechanical system, also were included. The final phase added a new 38,000-square-foot atrium/gathering space that included an administration suite, children's indoor play area, new music suite, and library/café area. Eight dedicated gathering areas in total were incorporated.

The construction would require some inconvenience in operations, such as moving worship and fellowship activities to the gym during some of the renovations. Staff even had to move off campus for 10 months, and the church suspended its childcare program for a year. But, it would be a small sacrifice to pay.

First Baptist had not undergone a major capital campaign in 20 years, so the potential was there for the church to raise plenty of funds to begin the construction.

"The project itself was compelling. There was no doubt about its need and its potential," Pastor Wilson said. "The project touched every age group and interest group in the church family – children, youth, senior adults, fellowship, worship, music, community building, administrative, etc. – and thus had an emotional appeal to everyone. Our capital campaign consultants were very effective, and our people resonated with their style and approach."

Construction began in 2006, and for the next two years, the First Baptist campus was slowly transformed as each phase of the master plan was completed. Attention was paid to detail, including matching both interior and exterior designs of the new church buildings to the old. Use of large, round, and arched windows and circular bay projection were designed to reflect the approachable, welcoming spirit of the congregation.

And, since Dalton is the "Carpet Capital of the World," TurnerBatson used flooring finishes that were manufactured locally.

"Our architects and engineers did a legendary job of designing a building that avoids many of the flaws of 'staged' construction projects of several decades," Pastor Wilson said. "The fact that we renovated nearly all existing spaces enabled us to have a design that looks seamless and current."

Construction was completed last September, and the result has evoked "much reaction and affirmation" from those who see it, Pastor Wilson said. The gathering spaces, in particular, have had a profound impact not only in the church's design but in the congregation as well.

"The conversations, impromptu meetings, sharing of coffee, and relaxed entrance and exit to events is very evident. We have seen a dramatic increase, for example, in how long people linger after events," he said. "This project is a sterling example of how to turn a 50-year-old facility into a modern, functional, ministry-friendly tool. Anyone doing a major renovation of such space would be wise to look carefully at the design and end results of our efforts."

TurnerBatson specializes in master planning, architectural design, interior design, 3D computer animation and visualization, and related services, www.turnerbatson.com.

In a Nutshell

Church: First Baptist Church of Dalton, Georgia

Location: Dalton, Georgia
Project Goal: Having made a conscious decision to stay in the downtown area, the church desperately needed to update its 50-year-old campus buildings. 

Size: 105,000 square feet of existing space; removed 20,000 square feet of old space; added 30,000 square feet of new space

Cost: $15.3 million

Challenge: The 1950s-era buildings had narrow hallways and confining foyers, which provided little space for members to congregate for fellowship before or after worship services or events.

Solution: Architects designed eight gathering spaces throughout the campus, including a huge, open atrium.

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