Throughout February, we’re commemorating Black History Month by sharing a behind-the-scenes look at designs that celebrate and serve predominantly African American communities while honoring their unique histories. Last week, we shared the renderings for the expansion of Motown Museum, designed by renowned African American architect Phil Freelon in collaboration with Chris Garris— check it out here!
Today, take a look at the designs for Greenville, North Carolina’s Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza. Zena Howard, an African American architect and leader of our cultural practice in North Carolina, is the project’s principal in charge, working collaboratively with lead designer Michael Stevenson. We’ve been working with cities and community groups across North America on “Remembrance Projects” that honor and remember the people, places, and cultures disenfranchised under misguided “urban renewal” initiatives in the 1950s through the early 1970s. Greenville’s Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza is a remembrance project that will memorialize the historic African American community that stood along the banks of the Tar River and was razed during a devastating urban renewal program in the 1960s.
The remembrance design team worked closely with community members, hosting listening sessions where residents could share their history, describe what the neighborhood meant to them, and consider what was lost to the community.
An important story for the community was the iconic Sycamore Hill Missionary Baptist Church, established by 22 African American residents of Sycamore Hill following the abolition of slavery. It was the center for social, political, and economic activity for the community and marked the western entrance to downtown Greenville. When the neighborhood was razed in 1968 under the City of Greenville’s urban renewal program, the iconic church was spared the wrecking ball by the persistent urging of Black leaders. Sadly, less than two years later, the church was destroyed in an unsolved case of arson. The Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza will be a memorial landmark located on the exact site of the former church.
The design honors the community, church founders, and the civic and spiritual strengths a generation after the community was displaced. Park benches that subtly reflect church pews are placed over a sanctuary area. There are 22 stained glass and stone walls interspersed throughout to honor the 22 founders of the church. The story of the community will be documented on the walls.
A concrete stained-glass tower marks the location of the original bell tower.
A sloping path through sycamore trees winds down to the riverfront—a remembrance of the pathway traveled by churchgoers to celebrate baptisms at the river.