Located just northwest of downtown Huntsville you’ll find this relatively unassuming church, constructed in 1965. St. Bartley Primitive Baptist’s current building belies the historical impact this congregation has had on Huntsville for over 200 years.
St Bartley has the oldest Black congregation in the state of Alabama, tracing its roots back to graveyard gatherings as early as 1808. The church’s official beginning was in 1820 when construction was begun on the original church near Big Spring, downtown.
Throughout their first fifty years, the African Huntsville Church, its name at the time, was influential in the greater religious community. It was a member of the Flint River Association, a group of both black and white churches that sought religious unity in the Tennessee Valley region.
The original church building was burned down during the Union occupation of Huntsville at the end of the Civil War. When the dust settled, a new building was erected, and the congregation was renamed after their second pastor, Bartley Harris, who performed over 3,000 baptisms in Big Spring over the course of his career.
The second church, built in 1872, stood across Church Street from Big Spring until 1964, when it was forced to move to make way for new urban planning. Today, the site of the second church is part of Big Spring Park, a larger planned area that includes the Huntsville Museum of Art, City Hall, and the Von Braun Center.
St Bartley’s roots are easy to trace – the congregation has only had nine pastors in its 200 years of service. Today the church is known for its dedication to community service and family ministry.
Next up on our list, we’ll visit First Baptist, another 1960’s building with a far older congregation.
You can’t miss the next church on our list. Coming up on your left you’ll spot the towering spire and groovy mural of First Baptist Church, which traces its congregational roots back to 1809.
The current building is massive, with multiple expansions throughout the years adding to its size. The original structure, including the arched sanctuary, was built in 1963. The mural that adorns its side is officially called Cosmic Christ, depicting Jesus as a force encompassing the planets and stars. Locals, however, have taken to calling it “Eggbeater Jesus”, remarking that the figure’s abstract body resembles a whisk or wire mixer rather than the Holy Ghost.
The mural was designed and constructed over the course of six years, from 1966 to 1973, during the height of the Apollo space program. Huntsville is home to the Marshall Space Flight Center, where rocketeering legend Wernher von Braun helped design the Saturn V vehicles that put man on the moon. The mural and the rocket-shaped campanile that was added later are an homage to Huntsville’s role in the space race.
The congregation that became First Baptist was organized on June 3, 1809, as the Flint River Church’s westernmost branch. Under that name, the church gathered in two meetinghouses, built in 1813 and 1825, in Meridianville to the north. The congregation moved to Huntsville in 1861 and settled on this site over a hundred years later.
With its towering stature and its proximity to major roads, the Huntsville Hospital complex, and the Big Spring area, First Baptist is a striking landmark that’s hard to miss and even harder to forget.
Up ahead, we’ll make a left on Madison Street and head up into downtown Huntsville, where we’ll find most of the historic buildings on our list.
With its crenellations and gothic arches, First Presbyterian combines old-world architecture with the red brick typical of the American South.
Alabama’s first Presbyterian congregation came together in 1818 under the leadership of Reverend Gideon Blackburn. The church has congregated on this site since the construction of its original church in 1822. This more permanent sanctuary was erected in 1860, managing to survive the war and occupation that claimed many of Huntsville's older buildings.
Our route today snakes through downtown’s one-way streets, with many of our sites fairly close together. Feel free to slow down or safely pull over at each spot to make sure you don’t miss anything!
The area you’re currently in is known as the Twickenham Historic District. The Federal and Greek Revival architecture in the neighborhood is exemplified by the grand columns and triangular pediments found on many of the historic buildings. This architectural style came to Huntsville in 1818 with Virginian architect George Steele, who designed many of the district’s homes. Today, this area contains the densest concentration of antebellum homes in the state.
Taking a right and then a right again will place you in front of our next stop, the Episcopal Church of the Nativity.
Inspired by the architecture of England’s Episcopal churches, the Church of the Nativity features a cloister, a central courtyard enclosed by covered walkways. Designed by English architect Frank Wills in 1856, the church opened in 1859 to serve the needs of Huntsville’s Anglican Community. Though lesser-known in the States, Wills’s work in the Gothic Revival style can be seen all over the United Kingdom. The Church of the Nativity is one of the least-altered buildings in his body of work, making it especially significant for architectural historians.
The Episcopal Church had a rocky start in Huntsville. Like many places in the Deep South, early Alabama was heavily populated by Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians, which focus more on local and individual worship and are rarely connected to a central Church.
In 1834, after a few years of planning, a priest from the Diocese of North Carolina was sent to Alabama to begin missionary work and organize local Anglicans to form the city’s first Episcopal congregation. The small group began meeting in the courthouse but was forced out by officials citing the separation of church and state. Their next meetinghouse was in a small theater, but the actors who worked there didn’t take too kindly to losing their rehearsal space, and ran them out of the building.. Finally, the local Masonic Lodge allowed them to practice on their property.
Disheartened by Huntsville’s lack of desire for an Episcopal church, Dr. Robertson, its founding priest, retired and left town. Almost a decade later, in December of 1842, two clergymen visited Huntsville and found Robertson’s congregation still gathering for services. A Vestry election was quickly held, and the newly founded Parish was named Church of the Nativity due to the approaching Christmas holiday.
During the Union occupation, the Church was ordered to be used as a stable. The story goes that a soldier stopped in his tracks upon reading the inscription above the door “Reverence My Sanctuary” and when he reported this text to his commanding officer the church was left alone.
Let’s continue on our way. Head straight on Eustis and take a left on Lincoln to see Central Presbyterian on the right side.
Originally known as Cumberland Presbyterian Church, the congregation of Central Presbyterian is actually a few years older than First Presbyterian, being first organized in 1810. Though there’s some dispute over who really deserves the title of “First”, Cumberland Presbyterian lost the race to construct a physical church building, and has since taken a name that reflects their “Central” location in town.
The original building for the congregation was a small white meetinghouse a few blocks northwest of here, on a stretch of Greene Street that no longer exists. When the congregation outgrew the space, a new church was built here on the site of the current church. Designed in the Greek Revival style, the building is believed to have been designed by George Steele, whom I mentioned a while back. It stood here from 1854 until 1899 when it was razed to make room for the current church.
Because the owners of the adjoining property (now the Church’s Yard) would not sell, Chattanooga architect R.H. Hunt designed the current building to utilize every inch of the property allotted. The result is a wide, flat building with an above-ground basement that makes an imposing impression on the corner of Lincoln and Randolph.
This isn’t R.H. Hunt’s only contribution to Huntsville’s religious landmarks. In fact, our very next stop is another building of his. Head one block up Lincoln street to learn more.
On the left side of the street, it’s hard to miss the red brick edifice of Temple B’nai Sholom, Alabama’s oldest continuously operated Synagogue. This Reform congregation traces its roots all the way back to 1829 when Brothers Zalegman and Joseph Andrews opened a dry goods store in town and became the earliest known Jewish residents of Huntsville.
By 1874, the Jewish community here had grown large enough to purchase a section of Maple Hill Cemetery for their funeral rites. Congregation B’nai Sholom, which means “Sons of Peace” in Hebrew, was established in 1876 with 32 members.
Much like the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, the early years of B’nai Sholom saw the congregation renting space in the Masonic Lodge to conduct their worship. Their association with that congregation goes deeper – when left without a Rabbi in 1905, the Episcopal priest, a Rev. Claybrook, volunteered to lead Friday night Sabbath services for his neighbors.
The first full-time Rabbi was hired in 1892 but was asked to leave the congregation shortly after due to his habit of starting sermons by calling out the names of all the members who hadn’t shown up that day.
In 1899, the current building was contracted for $16,000 dollars, equivalent to about half a million in the 21st century. However, the next few decades saw the Jewish population of Huntsville decline, with the Great Depression and Second World War causing an exodus that left B’nai Sholom with only 16 participating families by 1945.
The congregation was saved in the 1950s with the arrival of the Marshall Space Flight Center, which brought with it a wave of Jewish scientists from New York and California, as well as their families. Today, this is the foremost Reform Congregation in the state and one of the oldest in the whole South.
Take a left and then another left to head south on Greene street alongside our next destination.
The large white structure on your right is First Methodist Church. Hang a right at the corner to see its facade, and slow down or stop for a bit – this stop is actually a twofer.
First Methodist cuts an iconic figure with its white walls, towering copper steeple, and purple doors overlooking Randolph Avenue. Its congregation was founded way back in 1808 and has met on this site since the construction of a church here in 1834. Like many buildings in town it was used to house occupying forces during the Civil War, and a mismanaged cooking fire in the basement destroyed the church in January of 1864.
After the war, the congregation of 160 worshippers met at private homes to continue their practice. Over the course of the next decade, they raised funds for a new building that would seat up to 450 congregants, and Huntsville’s citizens leaped at the chance to pitch in. With the money raised in non-methodist churches and contributions from, once again, the local Masonic Lodge, the cornerstone of this new church was laid in 1874. Today, the church is seen as emblematic of the Reconstruction period, and exemplary of postwar southern architecture.
Across the street from First Methodist is Randolph Church of Christ, home to one of the younger congregations on our tour. This church was born out of the Evangelical revival movement of the late 19th century. It began with evangelist James A. Harding, who started preaching in the courthouse in 1883 and quickly solicited enough donations to begin work on the gothic revival structure you see now.
The church’s construction was begun in 1886, and it’s quite unique compared to other houses of worship in town. Rather than a central front door, the entrances to the church are located on either side of a prominent steeple tower that juts out in front. A modern wooden steeple tops the otherwise brick structure of the building.
Moving on, turn right on Washington and head up two blocks to Meridian Street, where you’ll take a left and circle around to the front side of Huntsville’s largest Catholic church.
The oldest Catholic Church in Northern Alabama, St. Mary of the Visitation strikes an imposing figure with its wide Romanesque Revival facade. Although the cornerstone was laid in 1861, construction was halted by the turmoil of the Civil War, and the Church was finally dedicated 16 years later in 1877.
The parish’s founder was Irish-born Father Jeramiah Trecy, who led missions north from his home parish in Mobile. Trecy was known for his successes in gathering new congregants, and Bishop Quinlan of the Mobile diocese tasked him with founding the first Catholic congregation in Huntsville. When the war interrupted his services, he enlisted as chaplain and aide to U.S. General William Rosencrans, fighting in decisive victories at Iuka, Corinth, and Stones River.
Trecy returned to Huntsville after Rosencrans’ defeat by General Bragg at the battle of Chickamauga and dedicated the rest of his life to fundraising across the United States to complete the church that stands today.
One more spot left to see! Follow the GPS directions over to the east side of town, where we’ll see the home of the youngest congregation on today’s tour at Holmes Street United Methodist Church.
After so many stories of Civil War-era congregations, Holmes Street Methodist may feel a little less-than-historic, being founded in 1905. Sensing a need to serve the Methodist community on the east side of town, the church was moved to Holmes street in 1906, pulled by a pair of horses.
Yes, you heard me correctly. The first Holmes Street Church building was physically moved here, foundations and all, from another location in town! But it didn’t get its reputation as the “movingest church in town” from moving just once. In 1909, with a congregation of over 300, more space was needed than could be built on the lot it occupied, and the church, once again, was dug up and dragged to another location, this time directly across the street.
While it's not the largest building we’ve seen today, it’s certainly impressive to think of the entire brick structure (or at least the front section you see before you) being dragged through the streets of town to its current location.
Despite the city changing the name of the road you’re on to Holmes Avenue, the church has retained its Holmes Street name. Two main additions have been made to the building since – the education center, the middle section, was constructed in 1958, and a new, larger sanctuary was added at the back of the building in 1967. The central section was demolished and rebuilt in 2012, giving the church its current appearance.
Well, folks, that’s all I have for you today! I hope you’ve enjoyed this fascinating look into Huntsville’s most historic congregations. If anything you’ve seen today has inspired you to look for your next home in Huntsville or Madison County, remember to contact our expert Realtor, Steve Stinson at 256-652-2316 or email@example.com. Until next time, this is Stephen with UCPlaces signing off. Have a wonderful day!