By: Jennifer Walker-Journey
Dr. Paul Gardner is a dynamic spirit. His warm and welcoming demeanor as Senior Pastor of ChristChurch Presbyterian in Atlanta, Georgia, sparked impressive growth over the past decade. But, in order to continue to grow the church’s congregation and reach more people within the city, Gardner knew the church had to expand in order to provide gathering spaces for youth, classes, meals counseling and ministry work.
The church was already housed in an industrial building on Atlanta’s main thoroughfare, Peachtree Street. But the site would not allow for further growth. Thus, the church purchased a three-story office building at the corner of Peachtree and 25th Streets, a more prominent location in midtown Atlanta just a few blocks from its current site.
The location was ideal for welcoming the younger, hipper, midtown crowd as well as remaining close enough to the older, more established neighborhoods in Atlanta. The building would have to speak to a variety of audiences. It was important to Gardner that it have a modern feel design that could incorporate much of the site’s existing building while embracing the urban culture.
Church leadership cut no corners when setting out to find the best architects to design its future home. They invited several firms from Atlanta and across the country to offer their ideas, including Gertler & Wente Architects, a New York-based firm that had recently transformed a 1913 parking garage into the new Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The design complemented the church’s desire to serve and be assessable to a growing inner city congregation. The street façade was restored to the industrial feel of the original building.
Discreet interventions were added to mark the building’s new use, such as a new tower off one corner and a welcoming two-story glass entry. Inside, the building features a café, large fellowship hall, classrooms, and a Greek amphitheater-style sanctuary that seats 870 buried inside the existing building.
“Everything about the iconography in the way Redeemer held its services and its culture really did not sit within the confines of a traditional church setting,” said Larry Wente with Gerler & Wente Architects. “Redeemer sort of blew the whole idea of traditional church architecture out of the window.”
ChristChurch wanted to immolate that approach, and ultimately hired the New York firm to lead the project. But the church wanted to be sure its Southern roots were not overlooked so it hired Atlanta-based Tunnell-Spangler-Walsh & Associates (TSW) as its local architect.
The two firms collaborated on the project with Wente designing the building and TSW’s Jerry Spangler assisting. “We were full participants along the way,” Spangler said. Wente agreed, adding that his firm provided the “big brush strokes, but it was Spangler’s team that did a lot of the detailing and fleshing out and making it fit in with the expectations of Atlanta.”
Finalizing the design of the new ChristChurch building was as meticulous as choosing the architects who would design the plans. The process took about two years.
The new design would encompass a 925-seat sanctuary with stackable chairs rather than permanent pews so that the space could be flexible for other uses besides worship. It also included classrooms, administrative offices, a coffee shop with enough space for mingling, and an art gallery to invite guests inside.
“We plan for our coffee shop to become a neighborhood gathering spot, and we’ll hold frequent art exhibits in the new gallery,” Gardner said. “We want to create a spirit of excitement and invitation so everyone will feel welcome to come in and join us.”
A subtle tower with tree crosses would identify the facility as worship space, and a courtyard would be added to transition visitors from the busy city streets to the more contemplative areas of the building. The building would also be tied to the sidewalks, making it “part of the fabric we want and the City of Atlanta wants in midtown,” Spangler said.
The exterior was modernized with a large-scale porcelain panel along with brick, glass and steel. “Passersby will know it’s a church, but they might have to take a second look to be sure,” Spangler told the publication Atlanta In Town.
The church felt strongly about repurposing the original three-story structure and incorporating it into the new facility. “It’s a great idea on paper and concept to repurpose what had been built, but it poses tremendous challenges,” Wente said.
Ultimately, about 80 percent of the original building was spared, but a portion had to be removed to allow for the sanctuary. The dramatic sanctuary was designed huge glass panels that allowed for literal transparency: Those passing by at 11:00 Sunday morning would actually see worship services in process.
“I am particularly pleased with the sanctuary space. I fought hard for natural light quality in that space. It wasn’t easily won, but I am pleased we won that battle,” Wente said. “It’s really intended to be a backdrop space to all the services that they hold within it’s not the architecture that’s crying out for attention. The natural lighting provides real warmth.”
It took more than five years from the time the original building was purchased by ChristChurch to the time construction was complete. But by December 2014, ChristChurch was ready to open the doors to its new facility in the heart of Atlanta.
“We’ve received great comments about the work,” Spangler said. But the best compliments come from those who are using the space. In an address to the congregation, Gardner said, the new building is “a stepping-stone to what God has called us to do here at ChristChurch.”
Gertler & Wente Architects is a New York City-based architecture firm founded by partners Jeff Gertler and Larry Wente in 1985. The firm specializes in designing environmentally sensitive buildings for institutional, retail, commercial, healthcare, historic restoration, multi-unit residential and single-family residential projects, with a particular focus on community-based, not-for-profit institutional clients, www.gwarch.com.
Tunnell-Spangler-Walsh & Associates (TSW) is a full-service planning, architecture and landscape architecture firm. The award-winning Atlanta-based company was founded in 1990 and specializes in sustainable community design and architecture, www.tsw-design.com.