Preserving the Spirit

A downtown Charlotte architectural treasure was almost destroyed when First Baptist Church moved to Marshall Park in 1975. Liz Hair, then chair of the county commission, and a group of prominent business leaders led a campaign to save the Byzantine sanctuary and turn it into an arts center known as Spirit Square. Three decades later, the future of the venerable structure is once again in doubt.

It’s déjà vu for historic performance arts center

A downtown Charlotte architectural treasure was almost destroyed when First Baptist Church moved to Marshall Park in 1975. Liz Hair, then chair of the county commission, and a group of prominent business leaders led a campaign to save the Byzantine sanctuary and turn it into an arts center known as Spirit Square. Three decades later, the future of the venerable structure is once again in doubt.

When members of First Baptist decided to build a new sanctuary in 1906, they chose one of their members, architect James McMichael, to design the project. McMichael convinced the congregation to break with tradition and construct a church that had no steeple but, instead, emphasized a central dome and circular sanctuary.

The design may have been prompted by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who had pledged $5,000 toward the purchase of a pipe organ if the church would choose an architectural style compatible with the Carnegie Public Library located next door. [what became of the library?} Carnegie was so impressed by the new church that he decided to pay the full cost of the organ.

A crowd of more than 1,400 packed the sanctuary for a dedication ceremony on May 2, 1909. The church organist, Mrs. Alexander Stephens, led the congregation in singing the hymn, All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name. The Evening Chronicle noted in its story that, “The First Baptist Church is so striking in its unusual elegance that it will always be viewed with interest by strangers and passers-by.” The Charlotte News declared the new church proved that “useless and costly church steeples” were a thing of the past.

A First Baptist minister, Dr. Luther Little, became a pioneer radio preacher during the 1920s, delivering his weekly broadcast from the church sanctuary. A colorful orator, Little preached in a tuxedo with tails each Sunday and enjoyed tooling about town in a sporty convertible roadster.

Mecklenburg County recently revealed plans to sell Spirit Square for development, but public opposition prompted the county to place restrictions on potential buyers. The restrictions are intended to preserve the historic performance center and provide space for arts groups.