If you think that churches should look like the Gothic structures Episcopalian, Catholics, Lutherans and prosperous Methodists built for their congregation, or those pristine white clapboard structures that the Congregationalists built by the hundreds in New England, you will be surprised by this building. This is one of the most innovative religious buildings in Detroit, the State of Michigan or the entire Midwest. If you glance at this structure and think of Howard Johnson, you will be among a legion. The orange color has that effect. But there is a longer and much more interesting story. There are few churches in Detroit where the link between architecture and scriptural passages is as direct as this one.
Blacks came from the South to Detroit in large numbers during the First World War to assemble military vehicles and munitions. Their residential options were few, so many of them settled just east of downtown along Hastings Street and parallel thoroughfares extending northwest from East Jefferson. As their numbers grew, so did their need for professional services. Their growth in numbers and their prosperity encouraged the formation of new congregation.
Calvary Baptist Church was founded by the Reverend James Henry Mastin and others on September 24, 1919 to serve the needs of the rapidly growing black population of Detroit. Shortly thereafter, they occupied a sanctuary at 1330 Joseph Campau, one that served them for about five decades.
Federal urban renewal funds became available in the 1960s. City administrators in Detroit used those monies to raze the rather poorly constructed homes in the Black Bottom area. Hastings Street was pretty much wiped out and replaced the Chrysler Expressway. The area to the immediate north, including the stretch of Joseph Campau where Calvary Baptist was located, was also razed so that more modern low-rise apartment and townhouses might be built. Many questioned the motive of the civic leaders who promoted this urban renewal since it erased a vibrant black community near downtown, albeit one with poor-quality housing. Urban renewal was known by its numerous opponents in Detroit and elsewhere as “Negro Removal.”
Losing their church, this congregation found inspiration for a new structure in the story of God’s deliverance of the children of Israel from their bondage in Egypt. What better reminder of that tale of God’s love than building a church that would remind all who saw it of an Egyptian pyramid. Hence the shape and the color of this unusual but provocative church. Apparently, the congregation and architect wanted a distinctive sanctuary and recalled the verse from Matthew: “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.” This church is certainly not hidden and is not easily forgotten.
I have not been inside this structure. I infer that its originality continues there since it is done in green, the color of Pentecost and the color that symbolizes hope to Christians. This modern church opened on Easter Sunday; April 10, 1977. You will also notice that, by design, there is no visible cross on the exterior of this church.
Gunnar Birkets was born in Riga, Lativa in 1925. He left that country after the Russian occupation and was trained in Germany but then came to the United States after World War II. He came to Detroit to work with Eero Saarinen and Minoru Yamasaki. He also served on the faculty at the University of Michigan from 1959 through 1990. He designed the current Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis, the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, the United States embassy in Caracas and the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York. He practice is currently located in Wellelsey, Massachusetts.
Architect: Gunnar Birkets and Associates
Date of opening: 1977
Use in 2010: Baptist Church
Photograph: Ren Farley; July, 2009
Description prepared: March, 2010
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