By Docomomo US / Hawaii Chapter
Along the freeway headed west towards the Honolulu International Airport, the undulating folded plate roofline of the First Southern Baptist Church of Pearl Harbor appears above a flat sea of houses like an island rising from the ocean. Nestled amidst military housing behind Camp Catlin, the church was originally built in 1961, and over the years it has endured considerable development surrounding its site, numerous congregation turnovers, and an impending loss of its lease.
View of the First Southern Baptist Church of Pearl Harbor. (Image courtesy of David Franzen Photography, 2015)
The 1960s were a time of growth in Hawaii’s population and consequently, its built environment — much like the rest of the United States. Two decades earlier, World War II had plunged the Territory of Hawaii into world view as news of the war centered first on the attack on Pearl Harbor and then continued, following wartime developments in the Pacific Theater. Hundreds of thousands of military personnel spent time in Hawaii — some only briefly as they were on their way to Pacific battle sites, while others were stationed here for several years.
Despite the tragedy of war, the surge of deployed military personnel and increased communication with the mainland opened new pathways for Hawaii’s development and eventually, Statehood in August 1959. With its new title of the 50th State, Hawaii’s number of Modernist designs rose quickly as people adopted the American way of life and its new styles.
First Southern Baptist Church of Pearl Harbor under construction, 1961. (Image courtesy of First Southern Baptist Church) 1
Design & Construction of the Church
The First Southern Baptist Church had been conceived in 1957 in order to serve military families stationed at Pearl Harbor and nearby bases. An agreement with the Navy to lease 3 acres was completed and ground was broken on September 25, 1960, with church members pitching in to help on the weekends.2The majority of work was completed by the C.W. Windstedt Construction Company.3By the end of 1962, $425,000 was spent on the building and grounds; this was significantly higher than the budgeted figure of $230,000, as announced in the Honolulu Advertiser prior to the start of construction.4
Designed by architect and former military personnel Ralph Meldrim Buffington from Atlanta, Georgia, this church remains an excellent example of regional modernism from that highly experimental time period in Hawaii’s architectural history. Though residing and working in Houston at the time of design, Buffington designed a church uniquely suited for Hawaii not only by its form, but by its function.
Corner windows with open jalousies capture the famous trade winds of Hawaii and when combined with a tall ceiling, the sanctuary is cooled tremendously. Lava rock walls and large louvers are local motifs, and the up-turned entry portico roof displays an Asian influence common in Hawaii Modernist examples. It is often said the design of the church was inspired by the beauty of Oahu’s Koolau Mountains.
View of the Koolau Mountains from the Pali Lookout, Honolulu. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia, accessed February 10, 2016)
Ralph Meldrim Buffington
Born in 1907, Ralph M. Buffington attended the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and also traveled to Europe on a private scholarship for European study and travel given by H. S. Shonnard of the Inner J.P. Morgan group. While in Europe, Buffington passed the entrance exam to l’Ecole Speciale d’Architecture and entered the Atelier of Auguste Perret, but later decided he was not learning anything new and left to continue traveling through Europe and to study under private mentors.5
Still in Europe in the late 1920s, he visited the architect Willem Marinus Dudok, a well-known Dutch architect who was associated with De Stijl group and whose work in Hilversum, Holland provided early examples of Modernism.6
When Buffington returned from Europe and was unable to find a job in architecture during the Depression, he worked for the rural Resettlement Agency in the development of Georgia parks. He traveled throughout Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and South Carolina. He also went to Washington, D.C. as an assistant architect on the Greenbelt Towns. The greenbelt influence is evident in the siting of the First Southern Baptist Church and in his further work developing master plans for churches.
While stationed at Hickam Air Field in Honolulu 1943-1945, Buffington worked with the structural design firm of Donald Lo. As exemplified in the First Southern Baptist Church of Pearl Harbor, his work easily blends architectural and structural design to create an elegantly striking aesthetic.
In addition to this example of his religious architectural work, Buffington was architect for eight schools in the Houston area; the Christian Cathedral in Oakland, California; and the Baptist Seminary in Taipeh, Taiwan. In 1936, Buffington settled in Houston, where he lived until his death, except for the three years he spent in Hawaii during WWII, but continued to travel internationally as a voluntary tithe to the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board. He was an active member of the Southern Baptists and donated his design work to the church.
Local masonry techniques and Asian influenced-design were utilized by the architect to connect modern and regional styles. (Image courtesy of David Franzen Photography, 2015)
The church retains original lobby detail and finishes, including a canted, multi-pane window screen wall with receding tiered planter and terrazzo flooring. (Image courtesy of David Franzen Photography, 2015)
Preservation Issues & A Rotating Congregation
The congregation peaked in the late 1960s, reaching 1,000 individuals enrolled in the Sunday school during the Vietnam War, another era when Hawaii’s military population surged. Although the church is currently being utilized by three different groups, it suffers a diminishing congregation in parallel with national trends. Additionally, it must contend with a continuously rotating congregation as military families are re-assigned.
The building retains much of its integrity, with its original design intent and layout evident. Additionally, many original finishes, fixtures, and details remain in good condition. With the help of volunteers from the congregation, the church has diligently kept many building issues at bay. However, there are building maintenance and preservation issues that have taken a secondary importance as the congregation deals with the current priority to purchase the land upon which the building sits, from the Navy.7
Ongoing preservation issues include the existing ceiling finish, which is visibly deteriorated and crumbling in areas. Efforts to replace or restore the ceiling finish while keeping the design intent reflective of the Koolau Mountains will be an upcoming concern for the church.8
The Docomomo US / Hawaii Chapter would like to bring awareness to the church’s financial plight and their rotating congregation. Many of our chapter members express interest in this church, from glimpses they catch while driving on the freeway. In a series we refer to as DocoPhoto, the Hawaii Chapter hosts ongoing gatherings for photography enthusiasts to document Hawaii’s modernist heritage and donate images to the Hawaii Modernism Library digital project. Member photos from the 2015 DocoPhoto event at the church are part of this article.
View of the sanctuary, 2015. (Image courtesy of David Franzen Photography)
2. First Southern Baptist Church of Pearl Harbor. FSBCPH 50th Anniversary: 1957 – 2007, brochure (Honolulu: First Southern Baptist Church of Pearl Harbor, 2007).
3. “Ground Breaking Set By Baptists.” Honolulu Advertiser, September 24, 1960.
4. “Ground Breaking Set By Baptists.” Honolulu Advertiser, September 24, 1960.
6. “Willem Marinus Dudok, Dutch Architect,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, last modified 2016, accessed February 7, 2016, http://www.britannica.com/biography/Willem-Marinus-Dudok.
8. Docomomo US / Hawaii Chapter. 2015. Oral presentation by Pastor Charles Beaucond, July 19, 2015. Docomomo US / Hawaii Chapter DocoPhoto series, Honolulu, Hawaii.