Rock of ages
Story by H.M. Cauley.
On a stretch of southbound Piedmont Avenue often crammed with cars zigzagging out of new apartments and retail centers, a small, country-style church pops into view just beyond Rock Springs Road like a mirage from the past.
Its two gables, accented with fancy fretwork, anchor either sides of a gray stone and beige stucco structure with a center steeple rising over red double doors. On the side of the building, an A-frame crowns five stained-glass windows whose beveled panels overlook the weathered headstones of a small graveyard that dates back to the 1870s.
The roots of Rock Spring Presbyterian Church, at the corner of Piedmont and Montgomery Ferry Drive, go back even further, to the years before the Civil War when the rural area was populated by names now familiar on Atlanta road signs: Cheshire, Medlock, Johnson and Collier, to name a few. Many of those families who founded the church are honored in the sanctuary’s stained-glass windows, installed when the current structure was built in 1922.
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The name of the church, “Rock Spring,” is not the same as nearby Rock Springs Road, but both derive from an old spring that used to flourish in the area.
The church’s charming exterior captivated Gail and Jeff Dore when they moved to Atlanta from California in in 1984.
“I remember thinking it was such a pretty church,” Gail Dore says. “It was the first church we tried, and we never went anywhere else.”
Her husband recalls meeting a longtime member who grew up in the then-rural church. “She remembered when Piedmont Avenue was a dirt road, and people tied their horses up out front. This was way out in the country in those days.”
Other Atlantans know the church for its annual live nativity scene, complete with animals, that has been drawing Christmas crowds to the small property since the mid-1950s. Through the years, the classic English-style country church with its Tudor Revival accents has clung to its corner of Piedmont despite the modernity that surrounds it, including new residential construction, the Sprouts natural foods store and an outpost of Grindhouse Killer Burgers. The contrast is particularly poignant on Sunday mornings, when the crowds at nearby Passion Church are so huge they require off-duty police officers to direct traffic, while the roughly 80 members of Rock Spring have no problem finding a parking space.
“We know we need to change what we’re doing to attract young people,” says Carey Miller, an elder who joined the church more than 30 years ago. “But we have traditions, and those are hard to give up.”
Unfortunately, traditions such as the Nativity scene weren’t adding to the bottom line, and the church’s existence was threatened by dwindling funds.
“We were talking a matter of months,” Dore says. “It came down to finances, and this was the only offer we had. It was sell or close.”
To keep on solid financial footing, the congregation recently closed a deal to sell about two acres of its property to a developer. The swath includes a deteriorating, red-brick manse built in the 1960s that has been vacant for some time, the lower playground area behind the church and a secondary parking lot.
A proposed residential plan submitted by developer Don Donnelly of Hedgewood Homes plays off the church’s unique architectural style.
“The site plan is based on older villages in Europe where the church was the center of the village, and homes radiated out from the central building,” he says. “We think this is a great solution to preserving historic churches and other historic buildings: Private, boutique developer purchases excess church property and creates land plan and architecture for new homes that support the historic church architecture and do not overpower the historic buildings.”
Hedgewood bought the 1.9-acre property before zoning approval was granted so the church had the funds to make pressing repairs. While the original site plan called for 22 homes, the local neighborhood review boards reduced the total to nine, which Donnelly expects will be on the market for about $1.2 million each. Additionally, the new neighborhood’s homeowners association will maintain the church grounds.
The $1.95 million transaction won’t impact the church building, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990; a separate recreational building, Loudermilk Hall; or its playground, serenity courtyard and the graveyard. And the cash infusion will do more than keep the heat on this winter: $150,000 has been earmarked for charitable contributions
The most powerful impact may be in hurt feelings, Jeff Dore admits. But dire financial straits left little room for emotional considerations.
“It’s bittersweet,” he says. “Now we have money, but money doesn’t always fix everything. Money isn’t going to bring bodies. People have to want to come to church, and we have to have something that will make them want to come.”
That’s the next major challenge the congregation will have to tackle, Dore adds.
“The sale gives us time to reorganize and work through what we need to do to be a strong, healthy church.”
Until then, at least, a piece of Atlanta’s history remains standing on Piedmont Avenue.
Rock Spring Presbyterian Church. 1824 Piedmont Ave. 404-875-7483. rspc.org
Don your toe-tappin’ shoes and head to Rock Spring Church every Thursday night when the Picks with Hicks gospel band jams. In 2002, eight church members started the group, which has also performed at venues around town.