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Birmingham United Methodist Church
By: Jennifer Walker-Journey

Alpharetta, Georgia, an affluent northern suburb of Atlanta, is known by residents for having all the amenities of a big city but with the charm of a small town. It also holds pristine countryside, providing a perfect setting for grand homes and horse stables. It is here among the woodland Alpharetta community of Milton 183 years ago that Birmingham United Methodist Church planted its roots. In 1993, the Rev. John. L. Wolfe was appointed pastor, serving the church’s 22 members with an average Sunday attendance of 14.

There was something special about Wolfe. The church community knew it, and word quickly got out. Membership soon grew into the hundreds. Additional worship services were added on Sunday, but it was clear the small church had outgrown its quaint building. In October 2001, Birmingham UMC took a leap of faith and purchased five additional tracts of land totaling more than 60 acres, and turned its focus to the future. To help identify its vision, leadership hired Tunnell-Spangler-Walsh & Associates (TSW), an Atlanta-based architecture and community design firm.

“We were approached by the church to do both master planning and architecture,” said  Jerry Spangler, director of the architecture studio at TSW. “We started with the master plan and, in doing that, we did the same thing we do when we work on the architecture design. We first sat down with the leaders and listened for their vision. Sometimes it’s very clear what a congregation’s long-term vision is. But sometimes it isn’t as clear.  So we focus on facilitating discussions centered around five year and ten year goals for the church.  This involves more than just programming spaces. We want to understand who they are and how they worship.”

Church leadership anticipated continuous growth and wanted the master plan to reflect that forward-thinking approach. But it also understood the value of building an intermediate sanctuary that could accommodate as many as 600 members while keeping an intimate charm. The master plan would include space for a sanctuary and fellowship hall, as well as map out space for a future large worship center and educational buildings. The plan would also capitalize on the acreage with trails and an outdoor sanctuary.

Architectural plans focused on the intermediate sanctuary and a fellowship area. Its design was easily fleshed out through similar “listening” sessions with the owner. The church leaned more modern for its design, but, most importantly, it wanted to pay homage to its woodland surroundings. Leadership suggested an outdoor cloister configuration between the sanctuary and the fellowship/classroom building. The idea of an outdoor space with covered walkways linking together the buildings would force members outside to relish in the beauty of the land surrounding them.

Before the sanctuary could be designed, however, Spangler says, one has to have a good understanding of how the space will be used.

“One reason why I like church design so much is that I truly enjoy the discussion of what the church is about and what its services are like – traditional, liturgical, evangelical,” he said. “Also, I wanted to know how the Rev. Wolfe preached. He likes to move around and get out from behind the pulpit. So it was clear to me that there was a need for a thrusting stage or chancel.” 

The Rev. Wolfe also liked to visually connect with members of the congregation. The larger the sanctuary, the more difficult it would be to maintain an intimate environment. Thus, Spangler had to position the space so that eye contact could still be made no matter where or how far someone sat.

He tackled this challenge by designing the church similar to the shape of a Latin cross (if one were looking down from above), but with one important design twist. The church does not have a center aisle. Instead, the focus is on the adjacent courtyard. The axis of the sanctuary, if drawn from the chancel out, goes directly to the cloister and not the front door. The layout is unusual for a church but fits well with Birmingham UMC’s vision of embracing its woodland surroundings.

The sanctuary’s interior design offered an exciting palate for Spangler to work with. There was a budget he had to follow, but room could be made for special features that would help define the church’s vision. For example, radius pews cost more but helped carry forward a more rustic theme. Walls were designed with the same woodwork and high wainscoting set against earth-toned stonework and painted accents. Windows were made of stained glass, rose glass and clear glass. The sanctuary also provided room for a choir and other musical arrangements, as well as two drop-down screens for AV presentations.

The fellowship hall’s interior was designed with gray-blue panel wainscoting against earth-toned walls to compliment the sanctuary, but to give it a far more casual feel.

The exterior of both buildings carries forth the same muted tones and stonework with wooden accents along the church entrance and the cloistered walkways.

Construction began in 2004 and was completed just more than a year later. Since then, the church has continued to grow to more than 1,300 members with some holiday services bringing in more than 2,500 people. Despite its size, the church has been able to maintain its quaint appeal.

“It’s very gratifying to see the completed project. And it’s quite a story how it went from a very small brick church to this facility,” Spangler said. “The church leaders put forth the dream, creating a church environment and a woodland retreat that mirrors the rural (but sophisticated) sensibilities of this horse country community. We just helped put it all together.”

Tunnell-Spangler-Walsh & Associates (TSW) is an award-winning, full-service, planning, architecture, and landscape architecture firm, www.tunspan.com.

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