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Plans to renovate iconic church building spur community support

By Abbigail Remkus | Photo by Amy J. Owen 

To drive through Augusta’s historic downtown district is to take a step back in time. For many Augusta natives, like Virginia Beck Berry, one iconic downtown location is more of a walk down memory lane.

On Jan. 19, 1958, Berry said “I do,” to her late husband, Thomas Berry, at the altar of the former location of First Baptist Church on Greene Street, known affectionately as the old First Baptist Church. Years before her wedding day, Berry and her brother were both baptized at the church, and later, her two children would be dedicated there.

Today, much of the crumbling building that holds so many memories for Berry and others like her is in a state of disrepair.

Thanks to the recent acquisition of the building by Connie Wilson and Joe Edge, partners of Sherman & Hemstreet, Berry and the rest of the community who hold this historic site near and dear can follow along with the company’s efforts to preserve the iconic structure.

According to Historic Augusta Inc., the structure standing today at 802 Greene St. was built in 1902. Before that, the congregation known as the “Baptist Praying Society…established in 1817, and completed their first building on this site in 1821 with John Lund as their architect; it was in that building the Southern Baptist Convention was founded in 1845, eventually becoming the largest Protestant denomination in the world.”

Today, the church is making history for Sherman & Hemstreet. According to Edge, the company’s president, this is the largest renovation project the company has ever taken on, but it’s one that he says just made sense.

“We are committed to downtown,” Edge said. “A lot of what we do on the buying and selling side happens downtown. We drive past this building every day; we are very vested down here. It makes sense for us to be involved.”

The Sherman & Hemstreet team opened the building up to the community to give away the pews when the yearlong sale of the old church was finalized in September. Then, the carpet was removed to reveal original hardwood floors, which likely had not been seen in 50 years. The new owners were relieved to find out that parts of the floor were sturdy enough to bring in scaffolding to reach the century-old stained glass atop the structure’s unique, but deteriorating, dome.

No matter the damage time has done to the building, the its designs are unrivaled in Augusta. Many original features remain intact, including parts of the wood floors, doors and even the hardware on the doors. 

Once word spread, Berry and others in the community who still have ties to the church, which relocated in 1975 to its present Walton Way address, began to reach out, eager to pay a visit.

“I have never seen this much interest in a project in Augusta, ever,” Edge said. “The sheer amount of input from the public has been crazy.”

Under Renovation

The interest from the community comes as no surprise.

“If you think about it, First Baptist Church is a huge church here, it’s got a lot of history, not just in the building, and all of those people that have been involved with First Baptist Church in Augusta over the last 70 years. You’ve got all of those generations watching and interested.”

Renovations have already begun on the property that has been neglected for years. A new gutter system was installed to stop ongoing water damage in the walls, the stained glass has been removed for repairs and the failing dome is set to be replaced with something “historically accurate.”

A new roof has been installed over the 10,000-square-foot, two-story space on the back of the building. That area will be turned into roughly 25 rentable office spaces, available for companies or individuals in a time when working from home has pushed many businesses to downsize from the traditional full office suite. The permanent offices will have flexible month-to-month terms for their occupants that will in turn provide the funding to renovate the large sanctuary space. Plans for the main sanctuary space have not been determined, but Edge said they are considering a variety of options. Overall, renovations are expected to take anywhere from five to six years.

While this is a massive undertaking, Edge said it has largely been a community effort, with help from Historic Augusta, the Downtown Development Authority and even Georgia Power, among others.

The vision for renovating and revitalizing a historic Augusta structure to make it a usable space for today’s world is not a new idea and has been underway in many downtown buildings for quite some time. 

“There is enough positive momentum already happening down here; we are riding on the coattails of that,” Edge said. “There are so many new apartment projects and people moving down here. If you look at what they did with The Miller, it’s absolutely amazing. We are not pioneers.”

“More than just a building”

With the support of the community, demolishing the beloved structure was never really an option.

“I think if you had to tear this building down it would break a lot of hearts in Augusta and make a lot of people angry,” Edge said.

“This is such a unique property, there is nothing else designed like this downtown. There’s just nothing like it. It’s one thing if you tear down a historic building that is just some brick and some drywall. It’s not meaningful really. This is more than just a building, with the history that was here with the church and all of the people’s lives that were affected by this church.”

Throughout the project, the company will share updates of the renovations on its website. Visitors are welcome to come to see the church as work continues.

Berry recently got to revisit the church and stand at the same altar where she said her vows all those years ago, this time with her daughter and granddaughter by her side. She and her family are still members of First Baptist Church today, before she said the renovation of the old building is one she is thankful to get to see.

“I think it’s remarkable because it’s such a beautiful building. … So much happened here for me. I am excited about it.”

Berry’s daughter, Marie Churchville, attended the Greene Street church as a child with her brother, Frank Berry. Churchville came to visit the old church building with her mother and 10-year-old daughter, Presley Churchville.

“My brother and I were both dedicated here, and we attended here before we moved out to Walton Way. It’s kind of surreal,” Churchville said. “A lot of people don’t get to go back to where their parents were married … but I’m really excited about Sherman & Hemstreet taking it over and redoing it, I can’t wait to see that.”

While these memories are personal for the Berrys, the old church is a common thread among many generations of Augustans, and now it can be for generations to come. 

Appears in the January 2021 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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