Kansas City Church is Restored and Expands Its Role in the Community

In 2011, a fire destroyed most of the church sanctuary building, leaving only stone walls and ruin behind.

In 2011, a fire destroyed most of the church sanctuary building, leaving only stone walls and ruin behind.

In the early- to mid-1800s, two cities competed to be the major urban area west of St. Louis: the city of Kansas, which was a port on the Missouri River, and the city of Westport, which was where the wagon trains left. Westport was the departure point for the California, Santa Fe and Oregon Trails. Ultimately, the city of Kansas became what we today know as Kansas City, and Westport was absorbed into it. Today, Westport is a hip, eclectic neighborhood with a mixture of homes, entertainment, restaurants and bars.

For the better part of two centuries, one of the pillars of the neighborhood has been the Westport Presbyterian Church. Originally founded in 1835, the church has grown and changed with the neighborhood and city around it. A stone church sanctuary building was dedicated in 1904 and an educational building was added in 1916. The congregation grew and evolved throughout the 20th century and remains an important part of Kansas City’s fabric.

In 2011, a terrible fire destroyed most of the church sanctuary building, leaving only stone walls and ruin. Determined to rise again, church representatives turned to Kansas City-based BNIM, an architectural firm very familiar with bringing new life to what once was lost. BNIM was heavily involved with the reconstruction of the tornado-ravaged towns of Greensburg, Kan., and Joplin, Mo., as well as post-Katrina New Orleans. The firm was called on to help restore the Westport Presbyterian
Church to its former glory.

Although the fire was a tragedy, it was also an opportunity to rethink the church, its site and relationship to the community.

Although the fire was a tragedy, it was also an opportunity to rethink the church, its site and relationship to the community.

Designing Forward

There was never any question of moving the church to a new site, but there was a thorough conversation about how to best create a facility that could at once serve the needs of the congregation and the community while paying due respect to the history and legacy of the church.

For a congregation that had been around as long as Westport Presbyterian, it was natural to take the long view. Although the fire was a terrible tragedy, it also was an opportunity to rethink the church, its siting and its relationship to the community. The original construction and layout of the site had plenty of issues.

Architect Erik Heitman, formerly an associate principal with BNIM and project architect on the Westport Presbyterian project, explains: “The 1904 sanctuary building had a tower and main entrance. In 1916, the fellowship wing of the building was built at an angle to the sanctuary, following the church’s property line. It was built very close to a retaining wall with a graded area stepping down to a basement entrance, which was not properly drained, so throughout the history of the
church there were significant problems with how that building had been sited. The relationship between the sanctuary and the fellowship wing severely limited the exterior space of the church. There really was not sufficient space for outdoor services or meditative gardens. We wanted to save the most sacred part of the church, reorient the fellowship wing and allow the church to have meaningful outdoor space to extend their ministry outside.”

The church and the design team at BNIM came together and drew inspiration from each other. They wanted to not just restore the church, but to give it a future as bright as its past. For this project, owner and architect were a perfect match.

“Disaster recovery is ingrained in what BNIM does,” Heitman says. “We really thrive on the experience of working with communities and helping to create a vision for their future. In the case of the Westport Presbyterian Church, they had started on a process of creating their own vision before the fire.”

Like many urban churches, Westport Presbyterian had seen its congregation dwindle because of the migration of its members to the suburbs. In the 1950s, Westport Presbyterian was one of the biggest churches in Kansas City, but by the time of the fire, its numbers had decreased to about 100 members. The group that remained was small but tight knit and dedicated to its community.

“Before the fire, the congregation had already started to think and talk about who they were and what they wanted to be and how they would remain relevant in Westport,” Heitman says. “So when disaster struck, they were really ready to answer that question. BNIM stepped into a visioning process that had really started a year before.”

Photos: Brad Pogatetz

About the Author

Allen Barry
Allen Barry writes about architecture and sustainability from Chicago.

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