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Historic St. Louis Church Could Become National Center For Gospel Music

 Steve Smith and Monica R. Butler pose in front of Second Baptist Church near Delmar Blvd. in St. Louis. They plan to convert it into a national center for the celebration and study of gospel music. [8/13/21]
Butler Group
Steve Smith and Monica R. Butler pose in front of Second Baptist Church in the Central West End in St. Louis. They plan to convert it into a national center for the celebration and study of gospel music.

The historic Second Baptist Church building in St. Louis could become a museum and education center dedicated to the history of gospel music.

A group of local developers plans to raise at least $22 million to convert the church, located in the Central West End near Delmar Boulevard, into a gospel music hall of fame that would also include a performance space, movie theater and production soundstage.

The plan was conceived by Monica R. Butler, a St. Louis native who spent several years working as a film and television producer in Louisiana before returning to her hometown. She attended the church as a child.

“The lovers of gospel music will come and frequent this place,” Butler said. “It’s something that’s really deep. It soothes the soul, it heals the mind, and it’s just a wonderful kind of music.”

The project is backed by prominent local developer Steve Smith, CEO of Lawrence Group and co-founder of New + Found, which will provide development services for the museum. The firm has the historic church under contract for sale, Smith said. He declined to name the potential sale price.

As envisioned, the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and Cultural Arts, Entertainment and Gospel Research Center will include an education center, cafe and event space. It will be incorporated as a nonprofit cultural organization.

St. Louis was key to the evolution of early gospel music in the 1930s, Butler said. “The fight for years was: Where did gospel music really start, St. Louis or Chicago? So of course, we in St. Louis think that it started here.”

Many consider prolific Chicago composer and chorus leader Thomas A. Dorsey to be the father of gospel music, a style rooted in the blues and earlier African American musical forms. Gospel pioneers in St. Louis, including Willie Mae Ford Smith and Zella Jackson Price, deserve more recognition for their roles in developing the music, Butler said.

A prominent center in St. Louis for the study and celebration of gospel music is overdue, she said.

“To me, it shows a city coming together. Even where the church is, some of us were not always welcome in these areas,” she said, in reference to the city’s history of rigidly enforced segregation.

A place in peril

Butler Group
Monica R. Butler and Steve Smith inside the Second Baptist Church. The historic building, which was built in 1907, has suffered from neglect and vandalism.

The church at 500 N. Kingshighway was built in 1907 and is part of the Central West End district known as Holy Corners for its quartet of magnificent church buildings. It has lain dormant for more than a decade. Missouri Preservation put the site on its list of “Places In Peril” in 2019 due to longstanding neglect and vandalism, including destruction of some stained glass windows. The 40,000-square-foot building is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The planned gospel center is a fitting way to bring the building back into use, Smith said.

“It’s nice to go back to kind of its roots. Gospel music was sung and performed here, and to make it something that celebrates the history of gospel music seems very appropriate for the building.”

He said construction could begin as early as next summer and will take about a year.

The next step is fundraising. The group plans to hold gospel music events on Sundays at City Foundry, the complex for which Steve Smith was lead developer. Developers also plan to pursue tax credits tied to restoration of historic buildings.

Butler encouraged gospel music aficionados with memorabilia related to the history of the music to get in touch.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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