Bruce Goff designed some of the most creative works of 20th century architecture, but unfortunately many of them are now in disrepair. Over the winter holidays, I decided to go see his Hopewell Baptist Church in Edmond, which displays his love for organic forms and innovative uses of materials, including using oil field discards like the drill pipes holding the teepee-shaped structure. Scrap metal and locally-found stones were also incorporated, and even some pie tins were made into light fixtures. Lucky enough, I just happened to be circling the building with my camera when the current pastor of the church invited me to see the inside.
I wish a photograph could do justice to the inside of the Hopewell Baptist Church. It felt impossibly vast compared to how it looked from the outside, and the light coming in from the star window at the top was stunning. I actually grew up going to another Bruce Goff designed-church in Bartlesville, Redeemer Lutheran, and I remember it also bringing in this sense of reverence through natural light. The Hopewell Baptist Church was completed in 1951 and has been empty since 1989, and funds are currently being looked for to restore it.
The church was actually built by volunteer members of the congregation at the time, so not only does it reference Oklahoma’s history of oil through the materials and the American Indian culture through its shape, but the hands of the people are all over it. After its completion, it was featured in Time magazine in 1955, and named “Best Rural Church of the Year” in 1959 by the Oklahoma Baptist General Convention (no small feat for a heavily Baptist state like Oklahoma, I’m sure). Unfortunately, a decline in Hopewell and the leaking of the building caused the congregation to move to a less glamorous metal siding building next door.
The church was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2002, and I greatly hope that the congregation is able to raise the funds to preserve this amazing structure. (You can donate here.) Too many Bruce Goff buildings have met an untimely end, from Shin’en Kan in Bartlesville destroyed by arson, to the bizarre and disturbing fate of the Bavinger House in Norman. The poor Play Tower in Bartlesville was even rammed with a stolen tractor a couple of years ago, almost resulting in it being dismantled. Oklahoma has a surprising amount of stunning mid-century architecture, yet too often its preservation has been non-existant.
However, it definitely seems that the Hopewell Baptist congregation has not given up on their beautiful church, and I couldn’t thank the friendly pastor enough for letting me see this masterpiece from the inside. Even if it’s not in the best shape, the fact that the church is still standing is remarkable, and you can still see Goff’s genius in its form. Goff himself had a rather tragic life, resigning from his position at the University of Oklahoma after a possibly-manipulated sex scandal (being gay in the 1950s in Oklahoma wasn’t exactly accepted by the community), although he left to create some of his most striking work. He was invited back to teach at OU in 1981, but unfortunately died only a short time after. You might remember that I happened upon his grave in Chicago at Graceland Cemetery, where a piece of the distinctive blue glass that once decorated Shin’en Kan topped his memorial marker.
Although Goff isn’t a household name, his influence on the imagination of architects has endured. I remember mentioning his name to an older architect I met through my job in New York and his eyes immediately lighting up, and then telling me how he’d traveled all the way to Oklahoma once just to see some of the architect’s work. If you live in Oklahoma and have never taken the time to drive by some of Goff’s existing buildings, I really recommend it. They are truly unique and womderfully strange, yet somehow still embody the odd energy of Oklahoma, which is always adept at working with the materials it has and embracing the lively spirit of its land.