It’s a beautiful structure sitting just to the west of Henley Street, across Cumberland from the Knoxville Convention Center. Church Street United Methodist Church, built in 1931, might be assumed to have always been in that location – except for that name. Why would a church on Cumberland and Henley be named after a street (currently an “avenue”) several blocks away? The answer starts on neither Henley or Church.
The direct ancestor to the current church is White’s Chapel built in 1816 on East Hill Ave. The first Methodist church in Knox County, it boasted 68 members and moved to Church Street in 1836. The Civil War split the congregation, with half joining the northern Methodists and becoming First United Methodist. Church Street, being sympathetic to the south, was taken by the Union Army during their occupation of the city and used as a stable and a hospital.
Matters continued to be rocky for the church after the war. At the urging of local union sympathizers including, particularly, Parson Brownlow, the church property was seized. In 1871 came the first recorded reference to the church as “Church Street,” which had previously been called simply, “the Methodist Church of Knoxville.” The church had to meet elsewhere for several years until 1874 while embroiled in a battle with First United Methodist over ownership of the property. After winning that battle, the church built a new building on the north side of Church Street (Avenue) between Market and Walnut.
A fire in 1929 destroyed that building and the congregation met in various downtown sites while building a new structure a few blocks away, holding worship services in the Lyric and Riviera Theaters. Construction of the new Gothic church continued even as the Great Depression deepened. Church members mortgaged homes and sold silver, furniture and other belongings to meet the massive financial obligation. Designed by church member Charles Barber and John Russell Pope, (best known for his design of the Jefferson Memorial and the National Archives in Washington, D.C.), the construction drew local media attention when general contractor Harry Gervin was shot and killed on site in a dispute involving a love triangle.
The newly constructed nave made its debut in 1931, after an approximate cost of $650,000, and with the congregation seated in chairs purchased from Sterchi Brothers Furniture for $1.50 each. About a thousand people attended and others were turned away at the door. After struggling to keep the property during the depression, it would be a decade before the first stained glass would appear with the installation of the window behind the altar. Additional windows, designed by the same artist, Charles J. Connick of Boston, were added over the next decade, bringing the building to roughly its current appearance. Until now.
Recently approved by the Downtown Design Review Board, plans now in the schematic design phase will change the appearance of the main building for the first time in 85 years. The decidedly asymmetrical building will be expanded to include a reflective portion of the southern extension on the northern side of the main entrance and bell tower. Additionally, a later version of the rendering show below has a “roof peak” added to the north side to make it more consistent with the south. All the changes will carefully respect the history of the building and will be aesthetically sensitive, but the impetus is function rather than form.
The new structure will allow for sheltered drop-off in the back with access to the reception hall – which will be completely renovated – and to the nave one floor above by stairs and an elevator, making the building much more accessible. The expanded reception area will include a welcome area for visitors and improved restrooms. Access to a basement, once used as a bomb shelter and long difficult to utilize, will also be improved. A level entrance will be included from Henley into the nave, and a patio will be built on top of the new structure.
Amy Cathey, chair of the building effort and member of the faculty in the UT Haslam College of Business, told me, “We are very appreciative of our building. With the whole master plan we want to honor that architecture.” She insisted they are not going for the largest number of square feet, but for improvement on a beautiful, but aging building. Hartman-Cox Architects are lead architects on the project chosen, in part, for the fact that they are students of John Russell Pope, the original architect.
Anticipated cost of the expansion is around $6.5 million. It’s striking to consider that the first church built by this congregation – in 1834 – came at an expense of around $5,000. Construction of the 1931 church, as noted above was around $650,000 and this small addendum will cost ten times that amount. The hope is that construction will begin in early 2017 with an expectation of completion later that year.
Assuming all goes well on this phase of the project, the church has further construction plans they hope to pursue as money is available. The second phase, hopefully to begin in mid-2018 would include upgrades to the internal structure to make it more attractive and functional. While hoping to attract residents moving into downtown, Dr. Cathey and Dwight Wade, church historian and Knoxville M.D., pointed out that the original congregation walked to church and much of the future congregation might do the same. Dwight writes a fine blog to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the church. If you’re interested in history, church history or local history, I think you’d enjoy it. You’ll find it here. You can also see the entire plan in detail here.
A final phase under consideration to follow the second phase would be construction of covered parking along Cumberland which would follow the slope of the hill downward, thus not impinging on the view of the church from the front. The congregation will likely seek a partner for this phase who may have interest in using the parking when the church isn’t meeting. A downtown corporate partner, UT or the convention center would be likely candidates.
This is the second major investment announced by a downtown church in recent months. First Presbyterian Church is investing around $10,000,000 dollars on their project, bringing the two to around $16.5 million. As I said in the previous article, it represents a real commitment on the part of our downtown traditional congregations. I appreciate those churches which are respectful of the history of both their buildings as well as the urban fabric around them. It’s important that they respect the relationship with their context and a rapidly changing demographic as they hope to expand their relationships with new downtown residents. Projects like this one do so.