Published February 1, 2007
LAVONIA — It’s not stretching the truth to say that the sharp eye of a layman at First Baptist Church here has potentially saved the lives of at least 250 members and visitors at the church.
And it’s a lesson that other churches need to take heed before a similar fate befalls them.
Barely two years ago Barron Harbin noticed that the dome on the church sanctuary didn’t appear to be sitting exactly right. Harbin, who understands how wood ages as owner of Harbin Lumber Company, brought his concern to the church leadership and arranged for a structural engineer from Atlanta to crawl into the rafters and inspect the 90-year-old dome.
What he found sent chills down the back of the inspector; he urged the congregation to cease meeting in the 361-seat sanctuary as well as suspend Sunday School and other activities in the adjacent education building. Acting on that recommendation, the buildings were abandoned and have stood vacant since July 23.
The problem was sagging timbers in the dome of the church which was constructed in 1917, says church administrator Clay Coley. While construction appears to have been proper for the day, it seems that Father Time had not been kind through the years and beams and joists had shifted enough to weaken the integrity of the dome.
The possibility of a total collapse was just too much of a risk to take, the structural engineer ruled. And if the dome collapsed it most likely would fall toward the education building, taking a massive toll on any who would be attending Sunday School classes or enrolled in the weekday preschool program.
“I’m told that there are a number of these type domes of similar or modified style through the area and we want to alert those congregations to be sure they have their rafters inspected for structural integrity,” Coley says.
Larry Finger, pastor of the church, said he learned that the dome is known by some as the “Akron design” after its first use on a Methodist church in Akron, Ohio, around 1910. The design soon gained popularity and was incorporated into sanctuaries throughout the nation. A Baptist church in Jackson County and a Methodist church in South Carolina have already been identified as having similar domes and have been alerted to the danger.
The dome was modified in 1973 to provide a small skylight on the top – a part of the original design that was never incorporated at the time of its construction. No structural problems were identified at the time, but it is not known if the dome was inspected to that degree, Coley said.
What is known is that at least some of the shifting is current and ongoing. The dome was first inspected by the engineer in late 2005 and by the following spring, measures were in place to gauge any movement. By July 2006 – after just two or three months – the follow-up visit indicated a 1/8-inch movement, new gaps, significant bowing, and freshly loose nails.
The congregation, which has been in a growth mode, had been evaluating what to do in relationship to enlarging the sanctuary or building a new structure. However, it was not ready for such an immediate decision, Coley said.
“We were running out of space in the old sanctuary so we knew we were on borrowed time but we didn’t know just how loud the clock was ticking,” he says with a chuckle. “It looks now like we are going to have to put some feet on those plans pretty soon.”
Before the change the church had been holding an 8:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. traditional service in the old sanctuary and had sandwiched a contemporary service between the two in the fellowship hall. Now the fellowship hall is home to all worship activities – a 9:30 a.m. contemporary and an 11 a.m. traditional service.
What could have been a problem ended up being a blessing in disguise, Finger says. When the congregation added the contemporary service last year while still holding traditional services in the old sanctuary, it immediately attracted about 100 people who had never come to a service. That growth has continued with both services being held in the fellowship hall.
“I don’t know why the contemporary service has been so well attended, but we are attracting a lot of people who just don’t feel comfortable dressing up for church services. If that’s the way the church is growing, our people are open to that more relaxed format to reach our community for Christ,” he says.
Finger said he has to give “a lot of credit” to the congregation for being so understanding.
“They have handled the transition extremely well. It hasn’t been easy, but they understand.”
The church also moved the Sunday School, choir, and weekday preschool program from the education building to the family life center. Now it is turning its thoughts toward its suddenly encroaching future.
“We do not plan to relocate, we do know that,” Finger said. “The church owns five acres adjacent to its property where we could expand. The question is do we fix the old structure or demolish it and build a new state-of-the-art worship center, or … ?
“The questions will be answered by our congregation at the appropriate time. We are thankful for God’s grace and watchfulness that a tragedy did not befall the church. We will pray for God’s guidance and that His Will for Lavonia First Baptist will be realized.”
If your church’s sanctuary is similar in design to that of First Lavonia, contact Finger at (706) 356-4243 for more information. The church’s website is www.lavonia-fbc.org
Potential tragedy averted once already
The dome issue is not the first potential brush with disaster that the Lavonia congregation has experienced.
Two years before he noticed the sagging dome, Barron Harbin thought he detected an unstable part of the sanctuary’s balcony. Closer inspection showed his concerns were well-founded. When the carpet was removed it was discovered that one of the main support beams had shifted to the point that only one-fourth of the beam was supporting the entire weight of that portion of the balcony.
It was a disaster waiting to happen.
“If it had caved in on a Sunday it would easily have killed the 60 people who sit below it in worship services,” church administrator Clay Coley says.
But it could have even been more disastrous, placing the church in the state’s history books. That is because the sanctuary was used for the Feb. 24, 2005 funeral of former Gov. Ernest Vandiver and was “packed with a host of dignitaries from across the state.”
“We would have gone into the history books forever if the balcony had collapsed and killed some of those people,” Coley says with a shudder.
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