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St. Elmo United Methodist Church
By: Jennifer Walker-Journey

In the evening hours of August 23, 2009, the historic St. Elmo United Methodist Church went up in flames. The fire tore through the sanctuary, destroyed the pipe organ, and practically leveled the old church. The fire burned a hole in the heart of the quaint Chattanooga community.

Since 1921, St. Elmo United Methodist Church had stood at the foot of Lookout Mountain. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But now, all that remained were the two-foot-thick solid masonry walls.

"We will stand together, and shoulder-to-shoulder we will rebuild, making us even stronger and more able to help others," wrote Candace M. Esparza in an editorial in "The Chattanoogan" the day after the fire.

That's exactly what the church did. One of the leadership's first steps was to hire Georgia-based architects CDH Partners to present a design proposal for how to rebuild what had been lost in the fire.

"The church committee needed to replace all of the spaces that had been taken by the fire, which included the historic sanctuary, church offices, music suite, classrooms, and a fellowship hall with a commercial kitchen," said Michael Boland, senior project manager and architect with CDH Partners.

The church proposed a crafting an entirely new design for the church, but CDH Partners had another design solution to rebuild the sanctuary with updated amenities. The idea was heartily embraced by church leadership.

"It is difficult to categorize the project simply as new construction or renovation. It is a lot of both," Boland said. "The focus of the design was to stabilize and reuse the most important remains of the former building, which were front and two side facades of the historic sanctuary. These three walls, which contained the original stained glass windows that managed to survive the fire, were integral in retaining the historic integrity of the building as well as the neighborhood it served."

The new campus design included the restoration of the historic narthex and sanctuary, which seats 250 people, and includes a new pipe organ. The design also included a new large gathering area with coffee bar and a decorative open stair connecting to the classroom level below, a small chapel, choir rehearsal suite, counseling rooms, restrooms, stairs, and an elevator to provide handicap accessibility to the lower levels.

The main level of the facility would include the office entrance and church offices, as well as 12 classrooms for religious education and various ministry needs. The lower level would include the fellowship hall with two small meeting rooms, storage area, and a full commercial kitchen.

"The sanctuary was designed to resemble the original," said Kirsten Wittan, R.I.D., interior designer for CDH Partners. "The communion rail, pews and sanctuary furniture were designed and built to match the former furniture. The deep red carpet and neutral wall pallet were to match the original design and the church interior. A new pipe organ was to replace the organ lost in the fire and the pipes would become a focal point behind the choir."

The gathering hall and coffee bar addition adjacent to the narthex was designed with a contemporary flair using the newly enclosed historic brick wall complete with the restored stained glass windows, as a focal point in the space. Massive windows wrapped around the space were placed to provide an abundance of natural light and views of Lookout Mountain in the distance.

"The windows also afford dramatic views of this space to the people of St. Elmo that pass by," Wittan added.

As the design was in its final approval by the church and the city, demolition began on the building ruins that were not being reused. The demolition included the reclamation of all existing brick that would be reused in the renovation of the old sanctuary walls, as well as the construction of the new walls.

The finished product is a blend of old and new elements. A new floor structure for the sanctuary was inserted into the existing walls and new roof structure above, which braced and stabilized the masonry structure.

A new open steel mesh stair with reclaimed heavy timber treads connects this gathering area to the classroom and office areas below. The wood treads for the stair as well as the brick that was used in this area were reclaimed from the fire damaged building prior to demolition.

In May 2012, just less than three years after the fire destroyed the old church building, the newly renovated and rebuilt St. Elmo United Methodist Church opened its doors. It was a great blessing.

"Our church burned down in 2009, which caused such despair," the church wrote on its website announcing its grand re-opening. "But we have risen through the ashes and anticipate the wonderful things God will have us do in our new church building as we seek to serve the community even more."

CDH Partners is a multi-disciplinary design firm consisting of architects, interior designers, and engineers focused on designing buildings and spaces that will have a positive impact on the occupants they serve and the communities in which they reside. Specializing in the design of religious facilities, CDH Partners has designed more than 600 buildings for religious institutions throughout the United States, www.CDHpartners.com.

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