Dawson Memorial Baptist Church
By: Jennifer Walker-Journey
With more than 7,800 members, Dawson Memorial Baptist Church is one of the largest churches in the Birmingham, Alabama, suburb of Homewood. Over the years, the campus has expanded to include an administration building, family life center, and a parking deck.
One of the church’s priorities is serving its families, which means children are of particular interest. In fact, church families welcomed 70 new babies a year for the past three years. The original education building dated back to 1965 and was “bursting at the seams with young people, which is fantastic,” the Rev. Gary Fenton told The Birmingham News.
Knowing this, it is easy to understand why the church’s leadership focused on creating a better environment for its children and youth. But renovation and expansion was challenge from the start. Dawson’s campus offered little room for a new building or an expansion. Even the church’s administration building was built across the street from the church.
But there was hope and the leadership team discovered this when they sat down with architects and engineers with CDH Partners in Marietta, Georgia. Their options were drawn up. Designers proposed that the church purchase the street between the back of sanctuary and the administration building. A new education building would be constructed in between these two structures.
It was a clever idea, but one that neighboring residents just couldn’t warm up to. The church and architects eventually realized it had to scrap those plans and, literally, head back to the drawing board.
“It had really forced our hand on the location of the building,” explained architect Terry Biglow, who is an associate principal with CDH. “In fact, the only space left was the front yard, and that’s what we used.”
The new addition connects to the existing education building and stands between the sanctuary and family life center, and angles toward Oxmoor Road—a main thoroughfare that runs through Homewood.
The addition is a four-story facility that fits perfectly with the traditional sanctuary and other campus structures. A window wall was used to bring natural light into a stairway that also is a nighttime visual element.
Biglow explains, “Because of local zoning height restrictions, a basement level with areaways on each side was included in the design.” Each level has eight classrooms, some of which have operable partitions. On the top floor, four of the eight classrooms were merged together to form an auditorium for youth performances and meeting space.
Another goal for the addition was to create a new and easily recognizable entry to the church that would also allow for easier flow to all other areas of the church. From a visual perspective, it was hard to picture an addition jutting onto the front yard of the church, especially since the sanctuary was designed in a traditional neoclassical style and the family life center had a much more contemporary expression.
Designers for CDH solved this problem by matching the red brick used in both the sanctuary and the family life center, using windows similar to the classroom buildings and curtain wall glazing used in the family life center. Wide walkways were also designed to guide members and guests from the parking deck across the street to the new, readily identifiable main entrance.
Looking back, Biglow says putting the addition in the front of the campus turned out to be an even better plan that the original one. “It’s one of those things where you think you know what you should do and then you’re told you can’t have it and then it turns out even better than you expected,” he said. “In this case, it did just that.”
When it came time to build the addition, there were some unexpected surprises. “When we were digging the foundation, we found things no one remembered was there,” Biglow said with a laugh. “There were things like abandoned sewers and storm lines. They didn’t cause too much pain but were certainly a surprise. The existing classroom buildings were built at a time when less attention was paid to utilities outside the building.”
Construction moved along swiftly, and, in March 2012, the church held a dedication service for the new, completed addition. The addition looks very much at “home” on the church’s compact campus.
Since opening the new space, the church has beefed up its Mother’s Day Out program and added a new ministry that provides free clothing and school supplies to children referred by social service agencies.
“The City of Homewood has a fantastic building department. We met with the Fire Marshal and the Building Official in Homewood long before we applied for the building permit. We also had meetings with all the inspectors before hand so construction went smoothly,” Biglow adds. “During the whole project, as the people at Dawson will tell you, working in Homewood was a delight. We are really happy the project was such a success for everyone involved.”
CDH Partners, Architecture, Engineering, Interiors, Planning, based in Marietta, Georgia, provides the most up-to-date professional architectural services available, www.CDHPartners.com.