- Project Name
- Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza
- North Carolina
- Project Types
- Project Scope
- New Construction
- 48,000 sq. feet
- Year Completed
- Project Status
This project was featured in the October 2021 issue of ARCHITECT.
Until the mid-20th century, downtown Greenville, N.C., was home to a thriving, close-knit African American scene. Houses, schools, businesses, and churches lined the streets, creating a haven for its residents. Prominently located at its heart was Sycamore Hill Baptist Church, a religious and architectural landmark with a striking appearance.
Then the city’s planning principles “destroyed, disenfranchised, and created inequity” for residents of color, says Perkins&Will principal Zena Howard, FAIA, NOMA. In the 1960s, the city adopted urban renewal tactics for a planned town common that would dismantle its thriving African American community. Homes and businesses were razed, structures were set ablaze, and the Sycamore Hill Baptist Church, which had been in service from 1865 to 1968, burned in a suspected arson. The church and its parishioners relocated to the town’s outskirts, but many were unable to recover from their displacement.
Nearly 50 years later, during an update to the town common master plan in 2016, Greenville residents advocated for the commemoration of the former African American neighborhood. Howard says she realized that “partnering with the community to mine for stories” would help achieve a process of healing that would be essential to the project’s success.
Through intimate conversations with Black leaders and former central city residents, Perkins&Will discovered a strong desire and need for a place of preservation. Many former residents remained deeply connected to the neighborhood and expressed a wish to have their stories permanently integrated there. Community, spirituality, and history became the guiding design principles of a memorial.
Today, residents and tourists can find the site of the former Baptist church by visiting the Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza, completed in August 2020. Soaring concrete walls and stained-glass panels hark back to the original church walls and bell tower, accurately preserving the structure’s footprint. Text and photographs on display throughout the space take visitors back in time. Park benches recall the former church pews, creating a contemplative and spiritual space. In conjunction with the town common’s greenery, the plaza invites the community to use the past to move forward. For Howard, who served as the project’s engagement lead, the memorial is “a lever for profound change.”
Public memorial spaces present an opportunity to heal, empathize, and support affected communities. As architects face the challenge of addressing social ills, a participatory process with impacted residents provides for better design and more successful spaces. Though it took 50 years for Greenville to honor its historic African American community, many of its former residents have expressed satisfaction with the design and realization of the Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza.