Back To The Future: Sunlight, Gathering Space Return To A Historic Church

Top Quote Frank Harmon Architect PA completes the renovation and expansion of First Presbyterian Church. End Quote
  • Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, NC (1888PressRelease) September 19, 2012 - On Sunday, September 30, members of First Presbyterian Church in downtown Raleigh will participate in a dedication ceremony for their newly renovated, 194-year-old sanctuary and brand-new fellowship hall.

    And the congregation is already singing the praises of the design work by Frank Harmon Architect PA in Raleigh, specifically Frank Harmon, FAIA; John Caliendo, AIA; and Courtney Evans, architectural intern.

    "It just has this heavenly feeling to it," church member Mary Martin told the Raleigh News & Observer when the first services were held on September 9 after 17 months of construction. "It just has this peace."

    Since 1818, First Presbyterian Church has been a part of Raleigh's urban fabric. It went through several renovations, however, the most recent, and perhaps the most destructive, occurring in the 1950s. The result was a dark, dreary interior and a collection of architecturally unrelated structures around a parking lot.

    According to Harmon, the congregation wanted to update the entire church campus to become more modern, practical and united. The members also wanted the campus to be more welcoming to the public and to contribute to downtown revitalization by reusing rainwater, minimizing energy consumption, and incorporating open green space.

    "We selected Frank and his team for many reasons," said Jim Nichols, co-chair of the building committee, "creative abilities, experience, attention to details that mattered and passion and care for the project. From the beginning, they took time to know and care about the history of our church and it's on-going mission. They listened to members of our Committee and to members of the congregation. And over time they helped us shape the guiding principles, which helped us throughout the project. Those guiding principles were:

    >To create more beautiful spaces for worship, music, education and fellowship
    >To provide a unified, well-connected, safer and more accessible campus
    >To design a more welcoming environment for members and visitors alike
    >To craft a design which was respectful of place and which helped us look forward to the future."

    The project included renovating the existing Sanctuary and adjacent spaces, and replacing the existing 18,000-square-foot Education Building with a new 24,000-square-foot Education Building that houses classrooms, a library, archives, a common gathering space (or fellowship hall), an atrium, reception area, bathrooms, and offices. The existing parking lot has become a landscaped link that connects the two sides of the campus. Embracing sustainable architecture, the design includes natural ventilation and lighting and the use of locally available materials.

    However, "one of the most sustainable aspects of the church renovation was the recovery of the original 1900 building fabric, which had been covered over in subsequent renovations," Harmon noted.

    When he and his team began work on the structure, they discovered clerestory windows and huge, terra cotta and brick arches that connected the sanctuary to what was originally a sunlit fellowship hall - all of which had been covered over.

    To bring sunlight back into the sanctuary and adjacent fellowship hall, Harmon ripped out sheetrock and an old dropped ceiling. Those elegant arches now feature glass infill and a series of doors that can be flung open to welcome parishioners back to the bright fellowship hall where they can gather after Sunday services. Before the renovations, church members exited onto the street or into a dark corridor.

    Harmon's team also uncovered two round, stained-glass windows on the sanctuary's north wall that were reportedly covered to accommodate an air conditioning system - a move that the Rev. Edward McLeod Jr. called "an utter waste of beauty." (News & Observer)

    First Presbyterian is Harmon's third liturgical project, all of which have included historic structures. In 1999 he designed the Parish House for the 1826 St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Hillsborough, NC. In 2008 he completed a modern, thoroughly "green" Sunday school addition for Circular Congregational Church, the oldest church in Charleston, South Carolina. In 2010 the Sunday school addition received a design award from the American Institute of Architects' Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art and Architecture (IFRAA) and Faith & Form magazine.

    For more information on Frank Harmon Architect PA, visit

    For more information on First Presbyterian Church, visit

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