Centennial Baptist Church
The 1905 Gothic Revival Centennial Baptist Church, located at York and Columbia streets in Helena-West Helena (Phillips County), was listed as a National Historic Landmark on July 31, 2003. The building serves as a physical symbol of the work of the Reverend Elias Camp Morris. Morris dedicated his life to furthering the religious, political, and societal achievements of African Americans locally and nationally through his work as president and founder of the National Baptist Convention. Centennial Baptist is the only remaining structure associated with the productive life of Morris, who was pastor of the congregation in an earlier building on the site in 1879 and continued serving at the 1905 Centennial Baptist Church until his death in 1922.
Morris’s outreach positions with organizations like the Foreign Missionary Convention gave him opportunity to travel. European architecture inspired him to collaborate with congregant Henry Price on the design of a Gothic Revival church in Helena. Family history states that Price graduated summa cum laude from the School of Architecture at Howard University. There is no evidence of his enrollment among the student records of the university, however, so it has been conjectured that he received his training through an apprenticeship.
Whatever Price’s educational background, the end result of his work for Morris was a stunning brick Gothic Revival building. Typical Gothic architectural elements are ribbons of lancet windows, buttresses, and brick corbelling. Two tower entries on the south and north corners of the church provide access to the 1,000-seat sanctuary. Buttresses divide the elevations of the building into bays, and corbelling on a prominent front gable creates a vergeboard effect. Brick is also used to create decorative patterns on the tower friezes in the form of crosses and squares.
Centennial exhibits the typical lecture-hall floor plan with a raised chancel for the choir, pulpit, and lectern. The most striking features of the sanctuary are exposed curved beams, similar to medieval European hammer beam roofs. Curving braces elaborated with pendants arc from the walls, and original suspended multi-globe light fixtures emphasize the height of the beadboard ceiling. A 1908 pipe organ constructed by Henry Pilcher’s Sons of Louisville, Kentucky, is situated in the center of the chancel.
By the mid-1980s, the building had reached a state of dangerous deterioration, and the last service at Centennial was held in the 1998. Funds obtained from private and state sources were utilized to shore up five primary trusses in the sanctuary. The work was seventy-five percent complete before funding ran out in 2003. A report released in 2006 by the E. C. Morris Foundation, Inc., stated that the congregation donated the building to the foundation, and that group continues to work on plans to rehabilitate Centennial Baptist as a viable community asset. Centennial Baptist Church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on March 26, 1987, and was designated a National Historic Landmark on July 31, 2003. The site was designated one of the state’s ten most endangered sites in 2006 and 2018 by the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas. The structure suffered significant storm damage in April 2020.
For additional information:
“Centennial Baptist Church.” National Register of Historic Places nomination form, February 23, 1987. On file at Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, Little Rock, Arkansas.
Hammonds, Phyllis. “Henry James Price.” In African American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary, 1865–1945, edited by Dreck Spurlock Wilson. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2004.
Hope, Holly, and Christie McLaren. “Centennial Baptist Church.” National Historic Landmark nomination form, August 2001. On file at Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, Little Rock, Arkansas. Online at http://www.arkansaspreservation.com/National-Register-Listings/PDF/PH0119.nr.pdf (accessed April 13, 2020).
Nelson, Rex. “What Killed Centennial.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 10, 2020, p. 4H.
Williams, Henrietta. “The E. C. Morris Centennial Baptist Church Preservation Project, Helena, Arkansas,” Helena, AR: E. C. Morris Foundation, Inc., 2006.
Arkansas Historic Preservation Program
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