Fairfield: Mount Olive A.M.E. Church

by Tim Gilmore, 2/27/2016

cont’d from Phoenix / East Jacksonville: School Number 8

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Architects without formal education have often created fabulous eclectic designs. Their education has come from working with carpenters and masons and consulting with architects on the job. You might call them “outsider architects,” since “outsider artists,” wildly imaginative creators outside the tradition of artistic training and education, have been all the rage for decades now.

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From working down in the dirt and detail, the smartest such architects, like Richard Lewis Brown, understood the grain of the wood, the crystal of the dirt, and the larger intellectual ideas at work in designing human spaces in their time. Brown has been called a “gentleman architect,” and though he was born in slavery, he became a folk-Renaissance-man, excelling in farming, woodworking, and preaching, even serving in the Florida House of Representatives in the early 1880s.

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So you might call Mount Olive African Methodist Episcopal Church, built in 1922, one of an unknown number of structures Brown worked intimately to build, and the only building of several Brown designs to be credited with his name, his masterpiece.

Jacksonville’s first-known black architect, Brown was employed often as a builder, but when that job title included design, no architect received credit. Mount Olive fuses elements of several styles of its time to create a sanctuary totally sui generis.

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Imposing processional stairs, with solid balustrades, ascend from either side of the front portico to the front doors of the church. Three massive columns uphold the enormous pediment, the great triangular forehead of the sanctuary’s visage. The columns form a Holy Trinity, may as well stand in for God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.

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Brown uses concrete block to create a powerful face of rusticated masonry, into which he infuses a gravity-defying elegance of tall square towers brought forward at both extremes of the façade and mirrored in symmetries of arched stained-glass windows.

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In Mount Olive A.M.E., the earth seems simultaneously to have assembled itself in fortification against the worst of the world’s assaults and to have arched itself up into strong-veined wings to launch itself from its own destruction. I felt the same stunning paradox when ascending within the walls of Filippo Brunelleschi’s 15th-century Duomo in Florence, built at the birth of the Renaissance.

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Brunelleschi’s Duomo, as seen from Giotto’s Campanile in Florence, Italy

Brunelleschi, a goldsmith, wasn’t trained as an architect either, but he famously challenged his competitors to engineer an egg to stand on end. When no one else could do it, he tapped an egg on the table, slightly breaking its head, so the egg stood upright. When Florentine architects argued they could have done the same thing, he told them yes, but they hadn’t. He would the commission to cap the long-unfinished Florence Cathedral with its dome. The Renaissance birthed itself around him.

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These contradictory strengths are precisely what a powerful black church needed in the face of total and institutional racism in the Jim Crow South.

Inside the aeronautic temple of solid earth masonry, the upper stained glass windows, still bright through the darkening of 100 years, seem to shine down

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shadows. Of course they do. Brown’s entire architectural composition is no mere pairing of opposites, nor merely their reconciliation, but a symmetry of opposite tendencies—earthen gravitas and girth versus gravity-defying elegance / solid square shapes of stone against towering corners and peaks—that offers each opposite extreme its greatest strength in a way that doesn’t at all compromise the supposedly “naïve,” because informally trained, architecture, but brings together the utmost power of each architectural divergence.

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A stained-glass depiction of Abraham Lincoln Lewis floats above a stained-glass Gentle Shepard and his sheep the way a white dove hovers over the head of Jesus in traditional Christian art.

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Under which, between which, and in which, the preacher lines his sermon in rhythmic repetition, shaking the entire edifice, sucking up a powerful intonation of breath after each punctuation, line building on line, shaking the earth, shaking the heavens, like the trumpets that shook down the city walls of Jericho, shaking this building R.L. Brown designed as the combined opposing strengths of earth and heavens.

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James Weldon Johnson, the great Jacksonville novelist and musician and diplomat, replicated such sermons as poems in his 1927 book God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse:

Jesus, my lamb-like Jesus,

Shivering as the nails go through his hands!

Jesus my lamb-like Jesus,

Shivering as the nails go through his feet!

Jesus, my darling Jesus,

Groaning as the Roman spear plunged in his side!

Jesus, my darling Jesus,

Groaning as the blood came spurting from his wound!

And he ends his sermon, “Oh look!”

“Oh look!” he cries! “Oh look!”

Oh, look how they done my Jesus!

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The sanctuary thunders, solidly fortified in the earth, and the sanctuary flies, just as Richard Lewis Brown designed it to do.