Built in 1887, the turn-of-the-century African-American church was sold in March 2004 to Atlantic Development after its congregation abandoned it, deeming the structure too small and outdated. For nearly a year, Springfield Baptist's services have been held at J. R. Tucker High School while the church raises money for a new site and a bigger, more contemporary home.
Repeated phone calls to Atlantic Development's office on Cary Street were not returned by press time. Likewise, Proctor Beard, pastor of Springfield Baptist since 2002, did not return Style's calls for comment. But Beard has said publicly that the most desirable outcome for the quaint and nostalgic church it was built by the grandparents of some current church members would be for someone to purchase it and have it moved to another location, much like what happened with the newly restored Tucker Cottage in Jackson Ward.
At the very least, hallmarks of the church, such as the bell from its tower or the milk-glass windows, could be salvaged, suggests Chris Gregson, supervisor for historic preservation with Henrico County Division of Recreation and Parks.
Gregson says the most recent proposal he's seen for the building called for it to be converted into a pizzeria, though that idea was quickly abandoned. And so far, he adds, his office has not been notified by Atlantic Development of its current development or demolition plans.
"We'll do anything we can to try to preserve the site" or else what it holds, Gregson says. He says there is no county law requiring developers to do anything special with historic sites. Instead, he says, in the case of Springfield Baptist, the county has asked of the developers that it be allowed to survey the interior, photograph it and retrieve any artifacts prior to the structure being moved or demolished.
For now, the old rugged church appears adrift and out of place, a rural relic amid the mania of suburban retail. Developers haven't broken ground, but they have erected a tall wooden fence around the cemetery, which indicates plans are forthcoming. And what was months ago a tangled garden of weeds and tombstones now is a tidy, if hidden, graveyard. But is it all that will remain of the old Springfield Baptist Church?
Jennie Dotts, executive director of the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods, says preserving a place means more than just saving a building. The example of Springfield Baptist, she says, illustrates the loss of historical continuity and sense of place that results from sprawl.
"Buildings that help to tell the story of how African-Americans lived over the centuries are rapidly disappearing," Dotts says. "And the more architectural evidence we lose, the more historically illiterate we become. While the old Springfield Baptist Church may have outlived its original use, it can be adapted to a new use through some creative planning to the benefit of everyone and continue to stand as a reminder of the beginnings of this community." S
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