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St. John AME Church
By: Jennifer Walker-Journey

Jessie Hawkins, Jr., senior pastor at St. John AME Church in Aurora, Illinois, knew exactly what the kind of church he wanted to build on 26 acres reserved for the new building. For years, he had envisioned a church campus consisting of a new worship center and wellness and fitness complex. When the church was finally ready to take the first steps toward this goal, Pastor Hawkins retained Ray/Dawson, P.C., Architects & Engineers to give his vision life.

"Pastor Hawkins expressed very clearly to me his desire for the church not to be designed as an emphasis for worship in the sanctuary only, but also for the education and development of youth," said Elbert G. Ray, president of the firm. "He also wanted the building's design to be centered on areas for both primary and teenage activities, including an educational wing, a youth recreational room, and juice bar within the banquet hall leading to an outdoor patio."

Ray designed a master plan that could be built in two phases. The first phase would include a sanctuary for 1,000 parishioners, a banquet hall to serve 475 people for formal dining, and a chapel to seat 200. The building would also include 20 administrative offices, a commercial kitchen to serve the banquet hall, and a 3,200-squre-foot main lobby with a 2,500-square-foot skylight with Low E and argon-filled glass for energy efficiency.

Because the education of children and youth were key to Pastor Hawkins' mission, the plan also included five children's classrooms, an indoor play area, a nursery, and a dance studio, all connected by a 20-foot-wide by 180-foot-long and 11-foot-high corridor that would come to be known as the Village Promenade. The corridor would be enhanced by natural lighting from skylights and would serve as a major spine of this area of the building.

Pastor Hawkins also envisioned a garden, which Ray placed south of the building's main entrance, called The Walk of Faith, with seating and a centrally located garden fountain.

Phase 2 of the master plan, which would built at a later date, includes a 50,000-square-foot wellness and fitness center to be located just east of the phase 1 development.

With Pastor Hawkins vision in mind, Ray set to work on the design.

"The architectural principal of 'form follows function' is the approach I have always used when designing buildings," Ray said. "The form of the building's exterior is designed to reflect the function of the space within. The sanctuary, chapel, banquet hall, and classroom wing each has its own form, yet each are integrated together to form an artistic geometric design of masonry and glass. The building, because of its size and scale, was placed a fair distance from the main street to allow for vehicular transition in and out of the site, and to allow the Walk of Faith garden to be part of the building experience."

The exterior wall systems and roof system was designed with very high R values, or low thermal conductivity, with skylight and curtain wall glass using the latest technology in energy efficiency for the lowest U values, or insulation, possible.

The interior was designed to reflect colors and materials for added warmth and tranquility. The sanctuary and chapel incorporates linear cherry wood ceilings and wood flooring in the chancel and raised platform areas. Accent cherry wood walls in the sanctuary, as well as the main lobby, also lend to the continuity of the formal yet warm feel of wood in progression from the main lobby to the sanctuary. Wall covering and carpeting principally throughout the building was selected to bring out consistency to each function of space in terms of color, yet in different patterns. Wall sconces nicely complement the wall covering patterns, as well as the carpeting on the floor.

As the church design and subsequent construction began to come together, Pastor Hawkins began to turn his attention to the Village Promenade. While flipping through a copy of this magazine, Pastor Hawkins found an advertisement for a company that could make his vision come alive.

Headrick, most known as a premier manufacturer of signs and majestic crosses, had placed an ad featuring its other projects, which included 3D images.

"Pastor Hawkins said he wanted a theme for the children's area that was different from what other people had done," said John Rebry, account executive for Headrick.

Rather than cartoon-like murals painted on the walls along the Village Promenade, the pastor wanted something more historical and educational that could be appreciated not just by children, but by adults as well, in addition to telling a little about the members' heritage.

Pastor Hawkins handed Rebry sketches of his vision, which included an African village. Rebry took the sketch to his artists, who researched and located photographs that could be blown up to life-size. Not only was Pastor Hawkins keeping a keen eye on the design the team developed, but Ray got involved as well, pointing out any architectural discrepancies in the artwork or images used, making sure what they did was realistic.

For months, the artists at Headrick worked on the four main themes that would decorate the Village Promenade. The images were blown up and placed on the walls with trees or people pushing out from the artwork and animals walking down the center of the hall, giving a 3D effect. Plans were adjusted to eliminate any fire code or tripping hazards, and to ensure the project stayed on budget.

In August 2010, just 14 months after construction began, the new St. John AME Church was completed, a process made smooth by a close collaboration with consultants and builders who assisted with the project, as well as a the church's strong building committee.

"Pastor Hawkins and the building committee of St. John AME were extremely helpful and supportive at all times during the design and construction phase," Ray said. "Their single-minded objective and clear direction to me as the architect made the design of the project a great experience."

Ray/Dawson, P.C., is a licensed professional corporation providing architectural and structural engineering services throughout the Midwest. The company was founded in October 1987 by Elbert G. Ray and Julian R. Dawson, registered architect and registered structural engineer, respectively.

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