For a few dozen students from Spencer High School, the opportunity to step inside the restored sanctuary at the Calvary Baptist Church on Wednesday might have seemed like just another field trip.
But for Oklahoma County Commissioner Willa Johnson, the moment was magical. As a girl Johnson sang with the church's choir. And on Wednesday, she spoke to the students on the very stage where Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke, and it coincided with the 50th anniversary of his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Wednesday also marked the first opportunity for the public to tour the historic sanctuary, which was dilapidated just a couple of years ago. Water damage from the roof was so extensive that the building was no longer insured and its last congregation was limited to meeting in the basement.
That was when attorney Dan Davis and his wife Joy, both history buffs, saw that the old church at 300 N Walnut Ave. was for sale and decided to invest millions in converting into a home for his law firm.
“I'm in love, absolutely in love,” Johnson said after touring the church Wednesday morning. “It's a dream come true. I feared for a long time this building would be demolished.”
Students gathered in the original restored pews, set back above the restored wood floor, and listened to stories about the church's role in the civil rights movement, how activist Clara Luper organized the country's first lunch-counter sit-ins at the church, and the legendary black leaders who entered through its doors.
“We had the Douglass High School on Reno (at the current site of the Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark), and to have a general assembly program, they had to walk up the Walnut Avenue bridge to here because the little school didn't have a big enough space,” Johnson said. “And then this was the seat of the civil rights movement, and it was where Clara Luper and all those people who marched downtown used as their congregating point.”
Johnson met early on with Joy Davis and was thrilled that the couple kept their promise to restore the church in a way in which the sanctuary itself was preserved.
Dan Davis credits architect Omar Khoury with MODA Design with creating plans that allowed the sanctuary to be fully preserved while the old balconies were converted into modern glass-walled offices and conference rooms. More office space was created in the basement.
Preservation architect Catherine Montgomery, meanwhile, assisted in obtaining tax credits and ensuring the renovation preserved as much of the old church as possible. Enhancements included a new entryway and parking lot to the east and a small park garden at the building's northwest corner that Dan Davis hopes will be enjoyed by the Deep Deuce neighborhood.
Davis is happy to share the sanctuary with the community, and is equally proud of the church's ties to King, whose portrait now hangs in the entryway. The congregation's spirit, meanwhile, is seen throughout the building.
“They had it going on in this church,” Davis said. “You can see heel prints in the floors from when they were dancing here, and we wanted to bring the wood floors back without losing that. We wanted to bring the pews back, and the stage where Martin Luther King and Thurgood Marshall (the country's first black Supreme Court justice) spoke. And that's the amazing thing — it's all still here.”
Neon sign set to return
Willa Johnson is among those who have not forgotten the promises made by the last pastor at Calvary Baptist Church to save the old neon sign that stood in front of the landmark for decades until he changed the congregation's name to Covenant Life Family Worship Center in 2001. Johnson, then a city councilwoman who had secured federal Murrah bombing recovery funding to restore damages, was critical of the sign's removal. But when the church was sold to the Dan Davis Law Firm last year, the sign could not be found. Dan Davis and his contractor J.W. Peters searched extensively for the sign, and ended up using photos to create a reproduction that should be in place later this week.