When the cornerstone was laid for what is now Shiloh Baptist Church in 1923, it was proclaimed “one of the city’s most handsome edifices.” The stately, Beaux Arts/classical style church, built in a yellow brick, was the long-awaited dream of the Fifth Street Baptist Church, which had begun as a satellite branch of First Baptist Church. In 1963, the church, rechristened Felix Memorial Baptist Church in 1915, moved to the suburbs. Shiloh Baptist Church then purchased the historic church for their growing congregation.
Church buildings receive new families, just like houses – and the movement of a historically white congregation to the suburbs in the 1960s wasn’t uncommon either. Shiloh Baptist is a historically African American congregation.
Each church connected with the building has a fascinating history – Shiloh Baptist traces its roots to 1896, when former members of the Main Street Baptist Church and the Liberty Baptist Church began worshiping in a barn at the Kentucky Association Race Track.
This was just down the street from church’s current home. In those days, Lexington’s claim of being the “horse capital of the world” was firmly rooted in reality, with the Kentucky Association Racetrack located downtown and reminders of the horse industry readily at hand.
The temporary quarters for Shiloh didn’t last long – by 1897, a frame church had been built at 515-517 Thomas Street, just west of the many racetrack barns you see in the above map.
The mission church that would become Felix Memorial dates to around 1888, when the First Baptist Church decided to expand into Lexington’s north side – the area north of Fourth Street and east of Limestone Street was just getting developed at the time.
By 1894, the Fifth Street Baptist Church dedicated their new church home. That building was remodeled in 1909 and 1912, but by 1923, the decision was made to build an entirely new church.
The church decided to hire architect Edwin Stamler to design their new building. Stamler, a native of Boone County, Kentucky, became known for his churches and schools, though he also branched out. In Paris, Kentucky, Stamler designed the Robneel Building and the local library.
Unfortunately, Stamler died before completing the design work, leaving it to be completed by his partner John T. Gillig. The result of both men’s efforts is a monumental structure, with a centrally placed portico and arched windows separated by large pilasters, with double entry doors (each framed by their own small portico) at either end of the facade.
There were touches, however, of the popular fashions of the day in what is certainly an impressive building – the main hipped roof of the church was originally clad in green tiles – much like the many Craftsman-influenced buildings seen around Lexington at that time.
The interior of the main floor was described in 1923 as an “auditorium which will seat between 900 and 1000 people and a choir space that will accommodate 60.” The raised basement contained a “banquet and social room that will seat about 500 people.”
Shiloh Baptist Church was also celebrating the construction of a new brick church building in 1923. As their congregation grew, it was remodeled several times. In January 1963, with a congregation of over 700 people, Shiloh Baptist purchased the brick building on East Fifth Street from Felix Memorial, beginning a new chapter just down the street from the former race track grounds.
Historic churches are not guaranteed new chapters today – many notable church structures have been torn down across Lexington, to make way for housing or fast food restaurants. But when they are re-purposed, to serve a new congregation or new use – they add so much to our experience of the landscape and understanding of local history.