History of the Walnut St. Baptist Church
The Walnut Street Baptist Church, 415 Walnut St., Waterloo, IA, was constructed in 1908 by Waterloo architect Clinton P. Shockley, and it was individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000. This unique church is an important asset and central feature to a neighborhood that was recently nominated and recognized as the Walnut Street Historic District in 2019.
The triangular lot upon which the resource sits was purchased in 1896 for $350 by a small society of Free Will Baptist church members who built a small framed church there and incorporated it as the Walnut Street Baptist Church. By 1907, the membership had outgrown that building. With vision for a new church and $30,000 offered for it by church members, all but the cornerstone of the first framed church was demolished, and that cornerstone was used to start the $60,000 construction project of a new 30,000 square foot Walnut Street Baptist Church. This church was dedicated by its members in 1908 and still stands magnificently today.
The Walnut St. Baptist Church was an early leader in the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches. Known for evangelistic outreach, the church, in 1909-10, hosted nationally known evangelists like Dr. W.B. Riley, founder of Northwestern College in Minneapolis, and Evangelist Billy Sunday. Walnut St. Baptist emphasized mission and education, and by 1915, there were over 900 worshiping members, making it one of the largest Baptist congregations in Iowa at the time. Between 1920-1955, Walnut Street Baptist Church helped plant 3 other churches in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area: Burton Avenue Baptist, Hagerman Baptist, and Cedar Heights Baptist Church, influencing thousands of community members.
Not only was the Walnut St. Baptist congregation prestigious, but the church's architecture and design were prestigious and classified as late 19th and early 20th century American movements with a mix of English Arts and Crafts movement, Chicago School, and minor indications of the academic tradition of the Beaux-Arts.
Built of brick with Bedford stone and concrete trim, the structure is roughly triangular in shape, filling much of the triangular lot on which it is built. The design of Walnut Street Baptist Church is complex and unique. Every exterior facade is different and asymmetrical, and the interior spaces are a variety of shapes and sizes. According to Walnut Street Baptist's architectural description and construction history found under the National Register of Historic Places (Section 8, page 12), "This triangular form allowed the architect to explore form and function and find a new way to serve the ritual and activities of the church. Contrasting with complex form, the church has an orderly and calm appearance in spite of its corners and contrasting shapes....In spite of its unusual form, the church exhibits the early modern desire for function combined with the Arts and Crafts striving for simplicity."
The abstract geometric stained glass windows of the church were influenced by The Prairie School motif in their color and floral design. The windows are a beautiful and important organizing feature of Walnut Street Baptist Church. They have similar cornices and sills and are aligned on all stories, providing a unifying aspect to the diverse facades.
The sanctuary is another prominent feature of the church. This half-octagonal space is surrounded by a second floor gallery on three sides with a skylight (now covered in the tall roof. All spaces flow from this main area. In 1920, the church bought a large pipe organ, installed its 1,719 pipes in the choir loft, and dedicated it to church members who had served in World War I.
Walnut Street Baptist Church's bell tower is located on the southwest side of the church and towers over the main entrance lobby. Its narrow tower, with a slate roof and steeple, can be seen from several vantage points around Waterloo's downtown area, offering historic significance, character, and charm to Waterloo's landscape.
In 1971, the Walnut Street Baptist Church purchased land in West Waterloo and built a new church they named Walnut Ridge Baptist. The congregation packed up the tower's bell and the pipe organ, and moved across the city, selling the Walnut Street Baptist Church to Faith Temple Baptist Church. Beginning in 1978, the Faith Temple congregation assembled at 415 Walnut St. Worship services and Voice of Faith and dance conferences were central to Faith Temple Baptist, as was celebrating the fellowship built within the lives of the congregation. Faith Temple Baptist Church, under the leadership of Reverend Belinda Creighton Smith has been, and continues to be, a champion for human rights and equal opportunity; a vocal advocate for peace and justice across our community. Over the next 32 years, the integrity of the church began to deteriorate due to a leaking roof that was causing damage to interior ceilings, walls, and windows. Due to the extensive work needed and cost estimates to repair the historic space, Faith Temple moved to a new location in 2010.
In 2019, Iowa Heartland Habitat for Humanity, as a member of the Walnut Development Coalition, purchased the building in order that a visioning process could begin for renovation and reuse. In 2020, Link CCD, the convening entity of the Walnut Development Coalition, wrote a grant proposal seeking emergency funding from the Historic Resource Development Program, a program of the State Historic Society of Iowa. Funds were secured to clean out the building and to secure its exterior from further water and environmental damage. This work was done so that the space could be safe and cleared for the community to begin to walk through and imagine the future of this iconic building for the good of the community.