Volume 50, Issue 2 :: By Erik Heitman, AIA

The wreck of Westport Presbyterian Church awaits rebuilding and rebirth.

The wreck of Westport Presbyterian Church awaits rebuilding and rebirth. Photo: Brad Pogatetz

For more than a century, the stonewalls of the Westport Presbyterian Church loomed large over Westport Road, the main thoroughfare in one of Kansas City, Missouri’s oldest and most historic neighborhoods. The crenelated parapets and rough-cut stone of the Romanesque Revival church did not aptly reflect the welcoming and vibrant congregation that worshipped inside. Outside, the church stood at a crossroads between the three distinct areas of the Westport neighborhood: a dynamic entertainment district on the west, an important commercial corridor on the east, and a quieter residential enclave in between. Despite its small size, the congregation has always been an active force in the community.

Like many urban churches this congregation had experienced a significant decline in membership during the latter part of the 20th century as families moved away from the city center out to the suburbs. As membership waned, the congregation opened the doors to local non-profit organizations, maintaining the church’s place within the community. Over the years many arts organizations, historical societies, and social service providers called the church their home. During the last decade, as people began to return to the city, the remaining members of the Westport Presbyterian Church were engaged in a process of redefining how they could better serve the community in response to changes around them, when disaster struck.

On December 29, 2011, a fire engulfed the church, severely damaging a building that had served as the spiritual home for one of the oldest congregations in Kansas City. While the fire destroyed the building, it did not destroy the Church. The congregation quickly decided to rebuild in the community they had been a part of since 1835. In the wake of the fire, BNIM was selected to lead the reconstruction of a 27,000-square-foot church building and community center that would serve the congregation for the next 100 years.

Rethinking Preservation

While the original building stood in ruins, the BNIM Design Team posed a question to the congregation that resonated with the pastor, Reverend Scott Myers: “What does this building want to become?”

Commitment to historic preservation was a value held by many within the congregation; however, the original roof, interior structure, and finishes were all damaged beyond repair. The limestone walls were one of the few elements that withstood the fire in good condition. The site and the positioning of the existing buildings were also problematic. The original church was constructed in three phases. The sanctuary building and tower were built in 1905, followed shortly after by a three-story administrative wing (the Goodman building) constructed in 1915. A second addition (Baity) was built in 1954 to provide expanded Sunday school spaces and fellowship opportunities. The spatial relationship between the original sanctuary building and subsequent additions created a cavernous exterior space that accentuated the distance between the street and the front door. The existing grading, landscaping, and sidewalks in this area severely limited any opportunities for meaningful outdoor program area. Furthermore, the proximity of Goodman to a tall retaining wall was a contributing factor for the history of flooding in the building’s basement.

Several design charrettes were held with the Church’s Session Committee to define the vision for the new building. The future needs of the Church were clear. First and foremost, the building had to be a place of fellowship which exemplified the mission of the Westport Presbyterian Church: “To discern God’s activity in the new millennium; to follow Jesus in ministries of service, healing, justice, and prayer; and to make the city a better place for people to live, work, and worship.”

The new building needed to be welcoming and accessible to all. The sanctuary would need to be both intimate and spacious to accommodate their plans for a large pipe organ. The Church also wanted to make their fellowship space more open and available to the surrounding community, and they hoped for a storefront space to extend their ministry to the street.

Finding a balanced response to the program needs and the challenges of the site meant the building needed to be a place respectful to the rich history of the Westport Presbyterian Church and forward-looking, embracing the dynamic community it served. Preservation in this instance would not be an all-or-nothing proposition; it would be as much about preserving the congregation in place as it would be about preserving a piece of architecture. Through an integrated process of collaborative discovery, BNIM led a design approach that embodied the idea of “Building Positive,” focusing on positive outcomes at all scales to create transformative, living designs that would allow the congregation to thrive.


  1. North Entrance
  2. Lobby
  3. Fellowship Room
  4. Offices
  5. South Entrance
  6. Parlor
  7. Chapel
  8. Sanctuary

  1. Tower
  2. Heritage Hall
  3. Sanctuary
  4. Chapel
  5. Fellowship Room
  6. Library / Living Room
  7. Office

In reverence to the Church’s rich history the decision was made to restore the most sacred portion of the original church structure, the sanctuary building and tower. The 1915 Goodman building would be deconstructed to accommodate a new building better suited to the site conditions. The new church was imagined as a modern structure delicately inserted in and around the rough-cut, stonewalls that remained, a complementary contrast to the 1905 Romanesque Revival church. The parti is organized around the church’s historic tower where the original arched entrance is located. The tower was reimagined as a two-story volume with views of the sky above seen through clerestory glazing; from outside, the tower’s clerestory acts as a lantern drawing parishioners and pilgrims towards the two main entrances are on axis with the tower. A grand hallway links the building’s north entrance to the original entrance at the tower. In this space, called Heritage Hall, the once-exterior stonewalls of the tower and sanctuary become interior finishes in this space that has been programmed as gallery space to display church artifacts and remembrances. The strong, north-south axis created by the tower, Heritage Hall, and entrances become the communicating link between two distinct wings of the building: a sanctuary wing that includes programmed spaces which are more private to the congregation, and a fellowship wing that is intended to be more open to the community.

The Worship Space: A Delicate Insertion

The sanctuary and gathering space are the heart of the new church. The tall, gabled mass that houses these two spaces serves as a place of worship, teaching, performance, and gathering, designed to evoke feelings of reverence and lightness. Daylight enters the space through continuous, clerestory glazing that delineates the new construction from the old, and creates the effect of the roof plane floating above the historic walls.

The volume created beneath was shaped by the room’s acoustic design criteria. BNIM worked closely with acoustical designers Jaffe Holden, and Pasi Organ Builders, to balance the acoustical needs of a 21-stop organ with choral performance and spoken word. Manipulating the program elements into a simple diagram while maintaining the acoustical quality of the space required the team to push each other outside the realm of normal practice. The resulting sanctuary is a worship space where disparate components, including the organ and a modern AV system, join harmoniously.

Directly south of the tall, gabled mass is a lower volume that incorporates the chapel, administrative offices of the church, a library, and an informal lounge space. The chapel is a more intimate worship space with a strong connection to the outdoors, featuring full-height curtain wall (south) and clerestory glazing (east and west) that bathe the room in daylight. Floating between the vertical mullions of the curtain wall are five historic stained-glass windows salvaged from the original chapel. Miraculously, the leaded stained-glass windows, built by Willet Studios in 1948, had not been damaged; however, the steel frames and saddle bars supporting the glass had deteriorated causing the windows to bulge and sag. The historic windows were fully restored and now have renewed brilliance.

Inside the sanctuary and chapel, the design team honored the legacy and history of Westport Presbyterian Church through material selection. After the fire, a construction team led by A.L. Huber General Contractor painstakingly deconstructed the original building to salvage as much material as possible, including stone cladding from Goodman that would be used for new landscaping and wood from the original structure. The reclaimed wood served as the foundation for an authentic and simple materials palette that provides a delicate, modern backdrop and supports the rich texture of the historic stone and the modern insertion.

New wing to the left balances against walls of the original church and new sanctuary constructed within them.

New wing to the left balances against walls of the original church and new sanctuary constructed within them. Photo: Michael Robinson

Outdoor space outside new fellowship room offers quiet respite.

Outdoor space outside new fellowship room offers quiet respite. Photo: Michael Robinson

Interior of fellowship room overlooks plaza.

Interior of fellowship room overlooks plaza. Photo: Michael Robinson

Heritage hall with fellowship room to the left and old church walls to the right.

Heritage hall with fellowship room to the left and old church walls to the right. Photo: Michael Robinson

New sanctuary is designed and constructed within the footprint of the old, with salvaged stained glass and font.

New sanctuary is designed and constructed within the footprint of the old, with salvaged stained glass and font. Photo: Michael Robinson

Fellowship Space: Complementary Contrast

East of the sanctuary and tower, a two-story wing has been constructed to house a large communal space (fellowship room) with an accessory kitchen space and storage, as well as a new elevator and toilet facilities on the ground floor. The massing of the new fellowship wing aligns with the historic sanctuary. Like the sanctuary, the addition is clad in native Kansas limestone; however, the new stonewalls are honed to distinguish themselves from the original rubble stone façade.

The footprint of the new fellowship room has a direct relationship to original sanctuary’s structural frame. Historic stone pilasters that once supported the sanctuary’s gable roof were used to establish the layout of the fellowship wing’s steel frame. The west wall of the fellowship room opens to the Heritage Hall, revealing the purposeful alignment between old and new structure. The east wall is defined by a full-height curtain wall with views of a new garden space that is an extension of the fellowship room and invites nature’s sunlight, fresh air, and sounds to refresh and inspire people. The porous relationship between these three spaces draws a simultaneous connection between the church’s rich history, its present, and evolving natural world around it.

Below grade, the fellowship wing basement extends out to the street where the “Storefront” emerges. The storefront was created to extend their ministry beyond the stone walls of the Sanctuary and provide a direct connection to the Westport community. The Storefront can act as a stand-alone space open to the community and made available for use by outside groups or not-for-profit organizations that align with the Church’s mission. The all-glass walls of the Storefront are designed as an extension of historic retaining walls that define the neighboring property on 40th Street.

The new fellowship wing and Storefront are sited to balance the needs of the overall campus master plan with those supporting the development of a flexible, functional, and sustainable learning facility. At the street, a grand stair on axis with the tower connects the church’s main entrance with the sidewalk 10 feet below. The natural slope of the site along 40th Street is used to create the first half of an accessible route from the sidewalk to the main entrance with the second half of the accessible route wrapping around and over the Storefront, revealing a rooftop garden.

Tower space orients visitors to the main sanctuary entrance from both sides of the new building.

Tower space orients visitors to the main sanctuary entrance from both sides of the new building. Photo: Michael Robinson

Reinvigorating Faith Through Design

After a five-year exile during design and reconstruction, Westport Presbyterian Church is quickly becoming the center of community life that it was before the fire. This vibrant worship center acts as a bridge between the area’s active commercial and entertainment districts and the quiet residential neighborhood. Since opening in April 2016, worship attendance at Westport Presbyterian Church has increased by 30 percent and the Church is growing with new members, particularly young families drawn to the energetic new space. This growth has allowed the Church to offer children/youth Sunday School for the first time in years. The new sanctuary has been used to host community support groups, folk dance groups, musical concerts, and live theatre events. The Church’s children’s peace program and Boy Scout troop have flourished in the new fellowship wing, and members have become more involved in social justice and community service work.

To celebrate the first anniversary in their new space, an art exhibit was held utilizing the entire campus. Reflecting on his tenure as the church’s pastor, Myers said, “the Church has emphasized for at least 30 years now, finding the connection between spirituality and the arts, and this is done through the worship services and now it is really being expressed through the building…I think you can learn the art of loving God in this space.”

The author is an associate principal and senior project architect in BNIM’s Kansas City, Missouri, office.