Oklahoma Gothic

In Tulsa, a 180-foot-high steeple draws worshipers to a 3,500-person sanctuary that incorporates a professional theater-quality sound system.
August 11, 2010

Asbury United Methodist Church's 180-foot-high steeple is a new landmark on the east side of Tulsa, Okla. Visible for miles, it invites the curious to come face-to-face with Gothic-style architecture that is seldom seen in contemporary new church construction. Squint your eyes a little, and you might think you were southwest of Paris, and that was Chartres in the distance.

That's precisely the effect the congregation wanted to achieve in building its new church. Senior Pastor Dr. Tom Harrison says a crucial directive given to designers of the 242,000-sf facility, which opened last February, was that it be visible and open to the community. "We made it clear that we wanted the building to look like a traditional church," Harrison says.

Attracting new members is the first step in fulfilling Asbury's mission, "Belong, Believe, and Become." The fast-growing congregation now numbers 6,800.

Asbury's previous building was also Gothic in style, with extensive exterior stonework, but its sanctuary could accommodate only 1,100, says Daryl Whitmer, SVP of Sparks Architecture, Engineering and Interiors, the Tulsa firm that designed the new facility. The church was so pressed for elbowroom that it had to rent space in a shopping center across street.

Shortly after Sparks was hired, Tulsa-based general contractor Flintco was retained as construction manager to build what would be the company's largest church project to date. Asbury initially envisioned a 350,000-sf program with a budget of $44 million, but the church was able to raise only $18 million.

So the team went to work developing a plan that would meet the church's needs at a price it could afford. "Like any other owner, they wanted the most they could get for their money," says Lowell Heck, Flintco's VP of operations.

The church wanted to use brick to clad the exterior, but found that an exterior insulation and finish system (EIFS) provided a savings of $8/sf. Brick was used, however, at the church's five entrances, for a three-foot-high wainscoat that extends around the perimeter of the building at a level which might come in contact with landscaping or maintenance equipment, and at corners of gables. EIFS was used to create eyebrow accents in conjunction with cast stone employed around entrances and some of the Gothic windows, and it closely blended with the color of the brick and the stone, says Viviana Varnado, the project's architectural designer.

Additional savings were achieved by installing 400,000 sf of cement board for walls that are expected to be removed for future expansion.

Ceramic tile was specified in lieu of stone flooring for entrance areas, and artificial stone was used to clad concrete columns in the 6,000 sf gathering area at the main entrance.

A pre-engineered metal building was specified to house the 8,200-sf gymnasium. Asbury is contemplating another fund drive next year to finance further expansion.

Senior Pastor Harrison says some thought was given to purchasing the shopping center across the street, razing it, and building the new church there, but the benefactors who provided most of the funds for the purchase of the 36 acres on which the new church sits nixed that idea.

Because the new church is much larger overall than its predecessor, with a much higher steeple, distinctive Gothic features, such as pointed arches, could be accentuated, Varnado says.

The interior of the new 3,500-seat sanctuary was modeled on that of the Germantown (Tenn.) Baptist Church. Two rear-projection screens, 14 feet high and 18 feet wide, on either side of the pulpit enhance visual communication. The church also has a state-of-the-art sound system.

Pastor Harrison says the distances within Asbury United's fan-shaped sanctuary are short enough that he can identify people seated in the balcony from the pulpit, a distance of about 100 ft.

Asbury also has an adjacent chapel that is used for smaller gatherings. The chapel was designed to resemble the old building's sanctuary, even incorporating stained glass from the old church.

Asbury has allocated 8,000 sf to administrative space for its staff of about 70, which includes many part-time positions. A number of staff members are involved with preschool and children's programs, each of which occupies 25,000 sf.

The initial plan would have provided interim office space in the balcony area, with this space to be converted to balconies. Fortunately, a benefactor provided funds to make this unnecessary.

"We've done things here that we never could have done in the previous building," says Pastor Harrison. "We've been incredibly pleased with the design." His biggest disappointment: The church could afford to build only one gymnasium instead of the three that it had planned. Its basketball program attracts nearly 500 players.