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First Baptist Church

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1903–1906, Reuben H. Hunt. 1960, educational annex. 418 E. Bute St.
  • First Baptist Church (Virginia Division of Historic Resources)
  • (Richard Guy Wilson)

Well into the first decade of the twentieth century, the Romanesque Revival style remained popular with religious congregations because of the immense scale and metaphorical strength of its components. When First Baptist was built, Bute Street's urban character rendered all but the main facade of granite invisible to passersby. Large-scale urban renewal has left the church isolated, exposing its side and rear walls of brick. The church's overall massing is essentially square, but on the main facade its potentially boxy proportions are relieved by boldly projecting, asymmetrical towers. The turreted southeast tower is the facade's focal point, rising about twice the height of its truncated mate at the southwest corner. At the lower level, the towers are linked by a tripartite arcade supported by squat piers in the manner of Henry Hobson Richardson. The arcade creates an open narthex, the principal entrances to the sanctuary placed laterally at the base of each tower. A large, round-arched window is situated beneath the main gable at the center of the facade's upper level, and this motif is repeated at smaller scale in the various stages of the towers. The cavernous interior is covered by a handsome coffered ceiling and divided by a U-shaped gallery carried on cast iron supports.

Earlier Hunt had designed Baptist churches in Portsmouth and Newport News, and his selection as architect for the building was undoubtedly intended to reinforce the First Baptist Church's preeminent position among Norfolk's Baptist congregations at the turn of the twentieth century. In 1800, Norfolk Baptists had formed their own congregation and subsequently split and moved several times, finally arriving on Bute Street. The congregation was primarily African American, and the grandeur of First Baptist Church set a new standard for ecclesiastical design in the city and symbolized the prosperity of the congregation. An ambitious, block-long expansion of the church's community outreach facilities, designed by WTG Design Consultants, is planned.

Writing Credits

Richard Guy Wilson et al.


What's Nearby


Richard Guy Wilson et al., "First Baptist Church", [Norfolk, Virginia], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

Print Source

Buildings of Virginia: Tidewater and Piedmont, Richard Guy Wilson and contributors. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, 420-421.

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