Architectural History of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church
Special Collections and Archives
James Branch Cabell Library
Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church
[The text below was composed in 1996 by Tyler Potterfield, Senior Planner for Environmental and Historic Review, City of Richmond, for the registry form for Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church to be nominated for the National Register of Historic Places.]
The Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church consists of two distinct architectural components -- (1) the original or Jasper/Boyd Sanctuary constructed in 1887 and (2) the Russell/Bailey expansion of 1925. In addition, there were interim modifications made to the building between 1901 and 1924.
The original sanctuary was commissioned in 1887 during the tenure of the founding pastor, the Reverend John Jasper, and built by the African-American builder, George Boyd. Photographs of the building prior to 1925 indicate that the original building was far different from how it appears today. The 1887 Jasper/Boyd structure was a modest Norman Gothic building.
This sanctuary consisted of the core of the present sanctuary with a different front facade and exterior treatment. Specifically, it consisted of a simple building on a raised basement with a crenelated bell tower centrally placed on the front facade of the building. Wooden or pressed metal finials decorated the corners of the tower and the building while most of the building was refaced in brick and stone in 1925, unaltered original brickwork is found on the (largely-hidden) eastern facade of the building. This red common brick is laid in a common bond with reddish mortar. Round-brick arches, brick corbeling, and brick piers dividing the bays of the building characterize the original exterior treatment. The original cornice consists of brick corbeling and a small wooden boxed cornice.
The basement of the building consists of a large fellowship hall as it did in 1887. The main level of the sanctuary is supported by cast iron columns in the fellowship hall. The columns have been boxed in and room repaneled. The sanctuary interior to a large degree appears as it did prior to 1925. Photographic evidence indicates that the pews and gallery present today are from the original building. One significant change is the replacement of the original slatted gallery railing with a solid railing in 1925. The building also retains the original wooden wainscoting and cast-iron columns supporting the gallery. The congregation covered the original pressed metal ceiling with acoustical tile when the central air-conditioning system was installed. The sanctuary retains the pews and pulpit from the 1887 building
It is not certain what type of windows were present at the time of construction in 1887. Church tradition has it that the congregation installed the present art and stained glass windows after the death of John Jasper in 1901 under the direction of Dr. Randolph V. Peyton, who succeeded Jasper, between 1901 and 1924. A 1924 photograph shows a pair of stained glass windows in the front of the sanctuary that now flank the Jasper Museum on the lower level of the building. The majority of the windows are composed of tan and cream-colored "Art Glass". Each of these windows is decorated with a scallop motif at its base. The 1925 renovations recycled the original front facade windows and added new windows fabricated in the same pattern.
From this period is a special window, dedicated in Jasper's memory, offering a garden lined with lilies and roses, with a sun dial as its centerpiece. This window commemorates Jasper's famous sermon, "De Sun Do Move." During this period a large bust of John Jasper by Edward Valentine (now in the Jasper Museum) stood in one corner of the sanctuary.
The renovations of the church building in 1925 by the noted African American Architect Charles T. Russell and builder Mr. I. Lincoln Bailey updated and modernized the building in a more contemporary version of Norman Gothic architecture. The Russell/Bailey renovations completely refaced the exterior of the building (except the eastern facade noted earlier). Dark brown wire cut brick was used to reface the facade. Limestone was used for window hoods and coping. These material treatments are also found on the additions to the building and the Jasper Educational Annex constructed at that time.
The most substantial modification made by Russell and Bailey to the building was the new front (southern) addition, which projects out several feet from the original facade of the building. After demolishing the 1887 central tower they executed a large off-center (western) tower. The tower houses the church bell in belfry and accommodates a large stairwell to the gallery. The tower is in many respects a larger and more contemporary version of the 1887 tower. Russell and Bailey placed a three-bay entrance portal in the center of the new facade which opened into a new vestibule on the facade above the portal a large stone tablet reads:
Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church
Organized by Rev. John Jasper
Sept. 3, 1867
Rebuilt 1887 - Remodeled 1925
Within the sanctuary, the southern addition provided additional balcony seating. The addition on the ground floor accommodated the Jasper memorial room which to this day houses artifacts relating to John Jasper and the Church. A large rear (north) wing, added at this time, provided the most dramatic modifications to the sanctuary interior. This addition accommodated a new organ and choir loft on the gallery level. Above the choir loft is a large segmental-arched art glass window from the period.
The third component of the Russell-Bailey modifications was the Jasper Memorial Education Annex. Russell and Bailey placed this structure on the eastern side of sanctuary building, and recessed it from the facade of the Sanctuary. They separated it from the sanctuary building by a lightwell and connected it to the sanctuary at the northern and southern ends. The annex consists of a series of rooms on the east side of the building that open to corridors on the west side. The corridors are illuminated with skylights and windows facing the light well. A pressed-metal ceiling can be found throughout most of the education building. Russell and Bailey left the exterior of the building largely unornamented and subordinate to more massive scale of the sanctuary. The building has two levels that correspond to the basement and main levels of the sanctuary.
The building is an important example of late Nineteenth Century and early-Twentieth Century African American craftsmanship and design. The building is particularly important because of its documented associations with the following African-American builders ad architects:
George Boyd was one of a number of prominent African-American Builders in late-Nineteenth Century Richmond. His other notable projects include Baker School (c.1880 demolished), the Maggie Walker House (1889), and the True Reformer's Hall (1890 demolished). Sixth Mont Zion is an important surviving example of the work of Boyd and one of the few Nineteenth-Century buildings in Richmond which can be attributed to a specific African American builder.
Charles T. Russell (1875-1952). Charles Russell was a Richmond native and the First African American to maintain an architectural practice in Virginia. After training as a builder at Hampton Institute and working at Tuskegee Institute, Russell opened his Richmond practice in 1909. Russell designed a number of significant buildings in Richmond including the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank (1910 demolished), Richmond Beneficial Insurance Company (1911), and the St. Luke Building Expansion (1917).
I. Lincoln Bailey was a member of Sixth Mount Zion Church. He was one of a number of African American Builders in early-Twentieth century Richmond. He built and designed a number of African-American Churches in Virginia and North Carolina. The building is a significant essay in the Norman Gothic style of architecture. Evolving from a picturesque example of the style to a decidedly more modern one, the building is important in showing the architectural evolution of the building program of an African-American congregation. The building shows how the congregation grew and evolved over time and finally constructed one of the largest sanctuaries of any African American congregation in Richmond. The sanctuary seats 1,500. The pews and pulpit furniture are of carved oak from 1887. The building has an important collection of early 20th century art glass. In addition, the John Jasper Memorial Sunday School Annex is one of the first education buildings constructed by any African-American congregation in the city of Richmond.
The state of Virginia honored the church by commissioning a historical highway marker in 1995 which was unveiled on February 17, 1996. The city of Richmond has acknowledged the church's history with two separate proclamations in 1992 and 1996.
------ Tyler Potterfield, 1996.