From the Architect: The Building of Holy Trinity's New Church
June 16, 2009
“We commissioned your firm because you could blend traditional and contemporary. That’s exactly what we’ll need.” Tom Holt, the building committee chairman, spoke frankly with me after an early meeting. The reality, I soon learned, was a congregation with at least two diametrically opposed images of the future. One group saw change as a great opportunity to introduce new and exciting spaces. The other wished to keep the recognizable Anglican norms and forms of the existing church.
It is not uncommon for the oldest congregation members to be wary of change. At Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina, there were many senior parishioners who had been active in building the original church buildings. They were, however, among those most eager for change. Several of the older leaders emphasized the importance of opening up the ministry by offering more for young adults. It was the next generation, their children, who resisted change. They had grown up in the church and were most fearful of losing what they cherished about Holy Trinity.
At a retreat session members of my firm facilitated with parish leaders, some remarkable exchanges took place that allowed for both groups to approach the building program with fresh eyes. One member explained how many problems there were with the existing structure. “They cut too many corners back then. The building is not worth saving!” Another spoke eloquently of the beautiful “little church” image he wanted to see preserved. More than a compromise, the design that emerged from this intensive and creative interaction was a breakthrough. The church design became a consolidation, a new vision, based on those elements that both sides saw as crucial for an appropriate and spiritual worship space.
Approaching from the main street, the new Holy Trinity church strongly resembles the old one. The gable ends of each transept are the exact same proportion as the end gable of the original church. The nave, however, is much wider, a feat accomplished by some creative engineering with wood arches that form a non-symmetrical crossing. The exterior brick is a near perfect match with the original, an important component in relating to the connected education wing and renovated fellowship hall.
The entry welcomes visitors from both parking lots with glass and wood porch covers at either end of the narthex. The new church spire is placed at the center of the narthex, on axis with the entry doors and the ceremonial entry to the worship space.
The interior, though recognizably traditional in the wood details and cruciform shape, is a vibrant space filled with light. Functionally, it is programmed for dynamic worship and flexibility. The seating (custom designed chairs), the altar, pulpit, music areas, and even the sanctuary platform are designed to be moved. The only fixed liturgical area is the baptismal font. The marble urn-shaped bowl pours living waters into a shallow stone pool located within the tile floor.
Some elements of the design appear to be very contemporary, but they were actually part of the old church environment. For example, there was a strong sentiment against any stained glass. The new worship space expands on the well-loved views into the trees through clear glass in all the windows. The labyrinth is a traditional mosaic pattern in the center of the tile floor, provided for private prayer and contemplation. However, it also requires the sexton to move all the furnishings after the last Sunday service to prepare the space for a yoga group. Because of this, the parish is encouraged to rethink constantly the configuration of the space for each liturgical function.
Establishing a collaborative spirit early in the project proved valuable in continuing to find creative solutions. Everyone wanted the transition from the narthex to the main worship to be a glass wall. When the firm built a presentation model for fundraising, the architects saw a potential for a dramatic doorway. Though late in the design process, the idea was embraced and expanded upon by committee members. It was my good fortune to introduce George Hoelzeman, a liturgical artist, to the rector, Ray Brown. The idea for the door grew into a modern interpretation of Renaissance entry doors, such as the heralded “Gates of Paradise” of the Cathedral Church in Florence, Italy. Once installed, the doors became a focal point. They encapsulated everything that makes the space so successful, a true blending of the many new and traditional influences in contemporary worship.
I felt our role throughout the process was to lead, as well as contribute to the creativity of the entire congregation. Not everyone got their way, and there were plenty of ideas that didn’t work out. At the dedication, among the many smiles and celebrations, one woman grabbed my hand energetically. “I was against this project from the beginning. . .” I hesitated, but her smile conveyed no hint of animosity. “And I want you to know I was wrong,” she continued. “This place is beautiful!”
Ben Heimsath, AIA is a Principle of Heimsath Architects in Austin, Texas, USA.
Photos provided by Ben Heimsath and Jim West