Through the years,
First Baptist Church has provided substantial leadership in local and worldwide denominational and ecumenical efforts. It has participated in the founding and nurture of at least a dozen churches in the Asheville community. When our church’s history was published, seventy-six former members of the church were serving in church-related vocations. Of these, twenty-six were pastors, seventeen were foreign missionaries, eight were ministers of education, and four were teachers of religion, social service ministers, chaplains and home missionaries.
Today, First Baptist Church is busy at worship and work. The membership participates in programs for children and youth, choirs, Bible study and missions education. Church members provide key assistance in local, state, and global efforts, as well as helping in Habitat for Humanity, Asheville-Buncombe Christian Community Mission, and many other like efforts for community good. As has been true through the years, “The field is the world.”
The Architecture of the Building
The present church building, and fifth of First Baptist’s worship facilities, was designed by architect Douglas D. Ellington and was completed in 1927. It is one of Asheville’s greatest architectural treasures, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In a time when trends in architecture and fine art were headed toward the Modernism of the early 20th Century, the design of this 65,000 square foot facility represents a collection of ideas and styles. The plan arrangement of major forms and spaces is predominantly based on Beaux Arts planning concepts that stress formality and symmetry. With the surrounding mountains forming a backdrop, this arrangement which combines varieties of building heights and mass fits pleasantly within its context.
Ellington based the design of the sanctuary space on the famous cathedral and dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Italy. Santa Maria del Fiore was the first domed space built during the Renaissance and was considered a feat of engineering in its day. It consisted of two self-supporting masonry domes, an outer and an inner, with a space in between that is fully accessible to its peak. The First Baptist dome, constructed of steel ribs, utilizes a similar concept, yet is accessible only at its base.
The character of the church is essentially derived from Renaissance architecture. Many of the decorative details represent ecclesiastical images and forms found in nature. One example, an abstracted palm leaf, occurs on much of the interior and on all the original sanctuary furnishings, which were also designed by the architect. Due to renovations most of these furnishings have been replaced. The palm leaf among other details brings out Ellington’s sensitivity to the natural environment and enriches the building’s overall character.
Upon completion, First Baptist Church immediately took its place as a monument and symbol for our city. This project was one of Ellington’s first major commissions and received fervent praise both by the public and the national architectural community. As a result, Ellington moved his practice to Asheville and consequently was hired to design many of our city’s other great buildings. Some of these include the Asheville City Hall, Asheville High School and the S&W Cafeteria. Many of Ellington’s ideas initiated in First Baptist Church were developed in greater detail for these other structures.