St. Mark’s Episcopal Church - Gulfport, Mississippi
By: Jennifer Walker-Journey
For nearly 150 years, St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Gulfport, Mississippi, occupied a section of prime beachfront property overlooking the beautiful Gulf of Mexico. It stood proud among towering oaks that mark the landscape of the southern coastal town.
But the church experienced some hard times over the years, says The Very Reverend James B "Bo" Roberts. In 1969, just a few months after the Rev. Roberts first arrived at the church, Hurricane Camille destroyed the building, tearing down trees and leaving behind a shell of the white, wooden sanctuary. Camille, a Category 5 hurricane, was the strongest tropical hurricane during the 1969 season. It made landfall near the mouth of the Mississippi River, dangerously close to St. Mark's, and leveled almost everything in its path.
Church members quickly rebuilt, only to have the building damaged again in 1985, when Hurricane Elena, a Category 3 hurricane, plowed a tree through its roof. The damage was repaired, and St. Mark's continued its worship services.
As it moved into the 21st century, St. Mark's was blessed with a growing membership. The church had added on new buildings, but there was no room to continue its growth. Even parking space was becoming tight. Church leadership began considering moving or rebuilding.
On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in southeast Louisiana, becoming one of the deadliest and costliest hurricanes in United States history. It leveled much of the Gulf Coast, including St. Mark's, leaving nothing but a slick, concrete slab where the church once stood. As devastating as it was to see the church completely gone, "it gave us a clean slate to work with," the Rev. Roberts said. "It essentially took everything away."
The Sunday after the storm, the congregation met on that slab and held its last worship service on the site. While the beachfront property was sacred – it had housed the church since its founding in mid-1800s – there were challenges to staying there. New building codes required the church to be built up to a higher elevation, and hauling in fill dirt to reach that elevation would be costly. Add to that escalated insurance costs, not to mention the constant fear of another hurricane damaging or even destroying the church again, and the answer became obvious.
The church decided to sell the beachfront land and move inland. Doing so would slightly reduce the damage from hurricane-force winds, but eliminate the risk of damage due to tidal surge.
The church acquired a beautiful tract of land filled with mature trees on a very visible portion of highway at the entrance of Gulfport. Now all they needed was the building.
"Eley Guild Hardy has extensive ecclesiastical design experience and was proud to be a part of St. Mark's rebuilding process," said Stephen Stojcich, AIA, principal and director of design.
For the new building, church leadership wanted the new facility to respond to the needs of growth while recalling its historic roots. Eley Guild Hardy responded with a design organized around the concept of a central cloistered courtyard enclosed on three sides by the church, office, and parish hall/Sunday school buildings. The fourth side was enclosed by a covered walkway that connects the parish hall and the church and serves as a central, shared drop-off point.
"The complex is positioned with the church building addressing the most prominent cornier of the site for maximum visibility," Stojcich said. "A grove of trees was left intact to provide a buffer between the street and the building."
Parking was also divided into smaller areas and integrated into the site rather than having one large parking lot.
"The design incorporates a simple repetitive geometrices and a stark white color scheme to give scale and unity to the individual buildings, as well as recall the previous historic structure," Stojcich said. "The church building is cruciform in plan and utilizes transepts to house the choir and additional seating. Dormer windows and concealed clerestory windows behind the altar provide natural light to the uppermost height of the nave and provide glimpses of the mature live oaks surrounding the site."
Inside the sanctuary, a new reredos scaled for the new church is a simplified version of the old, and a new rose window depicting St. Mark created a dominant focal point for the sanctuary. Interior columns and exposed trusses defined the scale of the interior and clearly indicated the structure of the building. A loft area provided overflow seating for the approximately 600 members. The original bell from the destroyed church also was salvaged and reused in the new tower.
While construction was underway, the church met on the grounds in two modular units. Aware of this, architects staged the construction to disrupt services as little as possible. As the buildings were completed – first the Sunday school rooms and parish hall in March 2008, followed by the offices and church in June of that year – membership gradually moved in. By August 2008, three years after its old building had been destroyed, construction was complete.
"It looks much like and feels much like the old building, but it is much larger," the Rev. Roberts said. "We've got the best of both worlds."
The new building looks picturesque in its backdrop of tall trees, which has resulted in numerous requests from passersby to marry there.
"Everyone in the area is very complimentary," he said. "People pass by here and we're right here on the highway, a big, white building with a tall steeple on it. It's a pretty place."
Eley Guild Hardy Architects, with offices in Biloxi and Jackson, has become one of the largest and most respected architecture firms in Mississippi, www.eleyguildhardy.com.