Urban renewal was not kind to many areas of Louisville, Kentucky. The Brown Memorial Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (built 1864-65) weathered the waves of demolition around it, and some 150 years after Gideon Shryock designed the building on West Chestnut Street, its exterior continues to impress. But the design of the church is only one aspect to this landmark – the building houses a historic African American congregation that celebrated its 160th anniversary in 2014.
Shryock, a native of Lexington, Kentucky, and architect of the Old State Capital in Frankfort and the Jefferson County Courthouse (among many other works), studied architecture with William Strickland of Philadelphia. Upon his return to Kentucky, he became the Commonwealth’s first native-born, professionally trained architect.
Although Shryock has been called the leading proponent of the Greek Revival style in Kentucky, the church he designed toward the end of his career – noted as his last known work – is a blend of Greek Revival and Romanesque Revival (characterized by the use of semicircular arches, found most often on churches and public buildings).
A newspaper article from the dedication of the church in 1865 noted that “one of the largest and handsomest chandeliers in the West or South” was located in the church. This paragon among chandeliers contained “53 burners, and when fully lighted up at night, gives the room a princely and dazzling appearance.” The church building itself cost $11,000 to build.
Built as the Chestnut Street Methodist Church South, for a congregation previously located on Eighth Street in downtown Louisville, the building was sold in 1907 to the Center Street Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, a historically black congregation. In 1854, some 465 black members and four preachers of the Eighth Street CME church broke off to form the Center Street Church. In 1954, the church was renamed in honor of longtime minister Reverend L.H. Brown.
Parking lots and soulless and anonymous buildings from the late-20th century may hold sway over much of this section of West Chestnut Street, but the Brown Memorial Christian Methodist Episcopal Church is a survivor, and one I hope will continue to enrich the landscape and community of Louisville for years to come.