Pandemic Provides Boost to Columbia Baptist’s Expansion Project

By Mark Dreisonstok

THE PLANNED IMPROVEMENTS are shown in this rendering, and represent what the project will look like once its completed in the first half of next year. (Photo: Courtesy Columbia Baptist Church)

The coronavirus pandemic has been a hidden blessing for the timeline of Columbia Baptist Church’s extensive project to add a new spire and addition to the church.

While it was supposed to be completed toward the end of 2022, the new building and renovation should be ready for occupation in the first half of next year.

Columbia Baptist Church in Falls Church is a unique church with a unique history.

Columbia was founded in 1856 by seven abolitionists who sought to start a new church in Falls Church. The first building was built in 1857, right next to the original chapel of Falls Church Episcopal.

A historical marker on West Broad Street marks the location of its first building, which can be seen in Mathew Brady’s photograph taken during the Civil War (in which the legendary photographer Mathew Brady is pictured, for his assistant actually took the picture).

One of the Church’s first pastors, John Read, was killed in 1864 by Mosby’s Rangers as a Union sympathizer. In 1909, a new building was erected at its current location on the corner of Columbia and North Washington. Over the next 110 years, the church has added and subtracted from these buildings as the needs of the community changed. Now, with the new expansion underway, the Church begins its next steps in its 165-year journey with the community of Falls Church.

Fewer activities at the church due to Covid-19’s presence in our lives have, in its own weird way, put the expansions well ahead of schedule.

The need to expand the church arose out of practical reasons as much as anything.

MATHEW BRADY, who is a photographer himself, is photographed by the original church building in 1857. (Photo: Courtesy Columbia Baptist Church)

“The main purpose for the expansion is to increase our worship space. Our current sanctuary officially holds approximately 600 people, but ‘feels’ full around 400 attendees,” Brett Flanders, the executive director of the church, told the News-Press. “Because of this, we have multiple services to accommodate all of our worshippers, and to leave space for visitors. The new sanctuary will give us desperately needed room.”

In addition to space, the current sanctuary was designed in the late 1940s and built over several years in the 1950s. Needless to say, worship needs have dramatically changed over the past 70 years.

For example, the original shape and dimensions of the current sanctuary were designed for the un-amplified spoken word. Newer amplification techniques for speakers, singers and instrumentalists makes providing an optimal sound mix difficult. Controlled lighting is also a major challenge.
Along with that, space and access is at a premium in the existing sanctuary.

For example, everything needed for a service (musical instruments, music stands, decorations and musicians themselves) must be brought to the pulpit area through a narrow hallway. This presents another challenge, especially given multiple services with little time between services. The concrete block construction renders upgrades to accommodate these changes difficult to achieve.

“In our current space, our foyer area is very small, and can only be accessed through two sets of narrow double doors, which creates bottlenecks, not only on Sunday, but also during our many weekday activities,” Flanders said. “In addition to being a bottleneck, this foyer space is not large enough for people to stop and talk to each other. Architects often refer to this type of space as ‘third space,’ referring to a community space. Our expansion contains a much larger foyer space with large windows, seating groups, and a coffee shop that will provide a space for people to just sit, meet, work, talk, and be a community. We envision this space not being just for church members and visitors, but also open the greater Falls Church community.”

Samantha Wright, who heads up communications for the church, spoke of plays and musical offerings as some of the gifts which Columbia Baptist provides for the community beyond the immediate church membership.

The changes, of course, will affect the traditional appearance of the church for passersby, as the current steeple is being removed in favor of one directly over the new front door, which will help identify clearly the front door to the community.

Columbia Baptist’s new, visible look is part of the natural growth of the church and the City of Falls Church itself.