St. Mary’s-on-the-Highlands received a Merit Award from the American Institute of Architects | Alabama
KPS Group’s design for additions and renovations at St. Mary’s-on-the-Highlands Episcopal Church was presented with a Merit Award from the Alabama Council of the American Institute of Architects at the 2022 Excellence in Design Awards Gala held on Saturday, October 22nd during its annual Conference on Architecture.
St. Mary’s-on-the-Highlands is the oldest church in Birmingham’s Five Points South Historic District and one of the city’s best examples of English Revival ecclesiastical architecture. Beloved by parishioners, the original 1892 English Gothic church campus was expanded to include Drennen House – a stone parlor building – and a former YMCA building converted to educational space in 1974. As is common with many older parishes, St. Mary’s was faced with obsolete systems and deteriorating physical facilities. Compounding this were core issues of connectivity between essential levels and spaces on the steeply sloping site, as well as access from the surrounding narrow residential streets.
Church stakeholders were carefully guided through a master planning process designed to elicit an understanding of aesthetic desires and program priorities as well as perceived issues and the facility wish list. After optional solutions were developed, the Church decided what they wanted to accomplish and KPS worked with a general contractor to determine costs. The scope of improvements was finalized after a process of “right-sizing” to align vision and desired budget. KPS helped the Church communicate the project vision to the parish, providing images of design solutions to be used for fundraising.
Led by project director Hugh Thornton AIA, the design team conducted a master planning process to determine specific needs and studied optional ways to solve the Church’s core issues.
Connectivity and character were the two key concerns for this renovation and addition: connecting worship to Sunday school; forging connection with a new generation of young families with safe, relevant spaces to worship, learn, and celebrate; and maintaining connection with aging congregants by improving access to the beautiful Gothic building. Just as important was assuring the historic character of the iconic original sanctuary was replicated in new and renovated structures. The topography of the steeply sloping urban campus created multiple issues. Relying on street parking in a busy residential neighborhood, the campus lacked safe, convenient street access. Primarily outdoors, circulation was challenging. Essential levels and spaces lacked connection. Deteriorating facilities and systems needed rehabilitation, and the Church wanted a large, column-free parish hall.
Solutions prioritized renovation of existing space over demolition. New buildings are clad in the style of the old church, adding functionality while connecting with the past. A new parish hall steps back to avoid traffic and defer to Drennen House and provides a safe, covered campus entry. A new accessible circulation system connects new spaces to the existing sanctuary. Education and administrative spaces have been reprogrammed and modernized.
Programmatic functions housed by the various additions precluded logical adjacencies and resulted in inefficient use of space, forcing parishioners to go in and out of buildings rather than flowing through them to transition between worship, fellowship, and educational functions. Further, many of the floor levels of the previous additions did not align. This limited use and created a particular hardship for elderly and disabled parishioners.
The team worked closely with the Church’s building committee to develop the solution: a glass second-story connector perched atop an existing stone arcade and positioned to connect the sanctuary with the parlor, Christian education building, and new parish hall. The connector incorporates a new central elevator that provides an accessible route to all levels of the church, using “half stops” to interconnect with various levels and resolve accessibility issues. The connector’s scale and proximity to worship and education spaces fosters gathering and fellowship. Below the new connector, the existing stone loggia was partially dismantled and reassembled with a new floor plate to finally connect the existing sanctuary and Drennen House. Improved circulation from the stone loggia leads visitors through the new memorial gardens to the expanded columbarium. A metal sculpted angel watches over those who enter the garden walk and into different functions of the church complex.
The New Randolph Memorial Hall
The new Randolph Memorial Hall features a warm stone and slate exterior and large metal frame windows that bathe the parish hall in natural light while capturing views of Red Mountain. Elevated above an abandoned alley easement, it provides this urban church with a motor court, porte-cochere, and entrance that connects to all levels of the facility. The parish hall fulfills two key needs: a large, column-free banquet facility and safe, convenient access from the surrounding streets. Stepping back to avoid traffic in this busy neighborhood, it defers to the existing Drennen House. Elevating the parish hall above the former alley created the opportunity for both vehicular access and a covered drop-off below to serve as the primary accessible church entrance. In addition to sheltered pedestrian and vehicular circulation for church functions, the motor court is used for outdoor worship services and neighborhood engagement. Clad in the style of the old church, the building brings new functionality while providing a link to the past.
The Randolph Memorial Hall also provides St. Mary’s-on-the-Highlands with an expansive, high quality space for church events, weddings, and other large gatherings. Supported by a new commercial kitchen, its large banquet space draws inspiration from the design of the historic sanctuary.
Hugh Thornton, AIA | email@example.com