Columbia’s First Baptist Church to transform downtown YMCA for ‘next generation’

First Baptist Church members circled their block recently as they prayed about embarking on Project:Next and the purchase and renovation of the adjacent downtown YMCA.
First Baptist Church members circled their block recently as they prayed about embarking on Project:Next and the purchase and renovation of the adjacent downtown YMCA. PROVIDED PHOTO/First Baptist Church

First Baptist Church has acquired the downtown YMCA just around the corner from its steepled building for $2 million and will begin a $4 million renovation to re-make the building for the next generation, leaders said.

With the building purchase, First Baptist Church, one of Columbia’s largest congregations, will now occupy the entire downtown block bordered by Hampton, Sumter, Marion and Washington streets.

Called “Project: Next”, the plan calls for gutting and remodeling the 1950s-era rear addition of the 1911 red brick YMCA building at 1420 Sumter St. for use by the congregation’s middle School, high school and college students, said the Rev. Wes Church, First Baptist’s minister of discipleship.

Under the contract signed in November, the downtown YMCA will continue to operate at the Sumter Street location until spring 2016, he said. It will move to a new two-story 20,000-location at Bull and Hampton streets, a YMCA spokesman said.

Even though the church’s main complex is spacious, church leaders said they felt cramped on Sunday mornings as they worked to find enough space for its more than 300 middle to college level students to gather in small group settings.

“We call ourselves a Sunday School-driven church,” Church said Tuesday as he led a tour through the still bustling Y. “We want people to be able to get into small groups because that is where the change happens. Now we will be able to do that. Church isn’t just about Bible study. It’s about connections.”

The Southern Baptist congregation of nearly 7,000 members also hopes to draw from the burgeoning population of USC students and young professionals now making their homes in downtown Columbia. Just across Sumter Street, more than 800 people, mostly students, live in The Hub.

On its website,, the church’s longtime senior pastor, the Rev. Wendell Estep, alluded to the opportunities for Christian evangelism the revitalization of Columbia’s Main Street and surrounding community has spawned.

“Our downtown landscape is experiencing quite a renewal. The Main Street revival has ushered in a huge new ministry opportunity in The Hub,” Estep said. “Future opportunities to reach the downtown community will be manifested in the proposed apartments in the former AgFirst building and the complete renovations to occur on Bull Street. It goes without saying that the addition to our campus of a building dedicated to the spiritual well-being of students will fill a great need for ministry in the downtown area.”

Church said the excitement surrounding Columbia’s renaissance has buoyed the congregation that was first organized in 1811 and which occupied an iconic Greek Revival building from 1859 until the current sanctuary and family life center were built in 1992.

“The truth is a lot of Baptist churches left downtown,” said Church, who has been at First Baptist for 13 years. “We made a conscious, intentional decision to stay downtown. Now we can see we made a great decision. ”

After the April 26 church service, church members were dismissed by the senior pastor to circle the block and engage in silent prayer about the launch of the initiative. They held “commitment Sunday” last week to seek pledges for the $6 million campaign and conducted tours of the building after the service.

When the first phase of the construction is complete the building will house a 30,000-square-foot student center in the former gymnasium, an auditorium, small meeting spaces, gaming and “hang out” areas.

Designed by Davis Architecture Inc. to have an open, warehouse feel, it will provide plenty of space for College Ministry, including the weekly Sunday lunch program after worship. The entrance on Sumter Street will serve as an open, airy gathering place while a second entrance will be built off the church’s Washington Street parking lot and will provide handicapped access.

The congregation is historic, no question, Church said, but the direction of the ministry is toward the future, which is why Project: Next is so important, he said.

The congregation first worshipped in a wooden church building at the corner of Sumter and Hampton streets where the church’s Higher Grounds Books and Beans coffee shop now stands. That wooden structure was later burned by Union troops during the Civil War.

In 1859, the congregation constructed the columned church that fronts along Hampton Street. It was the largest meeting place in Columbia at the time. In December 1860, shortly after the election of President Abraham Lincoln, South Carolina leaders met in a Secession Convention to determine whether to break from the United States. The convention, led by President D.F. Jamison, left Columbia for Charleston in the wake of a potential smallpox outbreak and the ordinance was signed there on Dec. 20, 1860.

For years, the church shared the block with the YMCA, Columbia High School and the Richland County Public Library. But when the high school and library relocated the congregation acquired those properties and built a new expansive sanctuary and family life center in 1992. It connects to the original red brick church, now a National Historic Landmark, which has been renamed Boyce Chapel.

The YMCA remained the only property on the block that the church did not own and many times real estate agents would dangle the prospect of a potential sale, Church said. When the church was approached last year, Estep didn’t go to the meeting, thinking it would be another near-miss, Church said. The deacons were even preparing to vote on a plan to expand on the Washington Street side with a new 40,000-square foot building.

But it turned out the YMCA was preparing to embark on its own construction of a new downtown facility and was serious about the sale.

“It’s just taken 200 years” to finally acquire the whole block, Church chuckled.

The Downtown YMCA has its own history. President Woodrow Wilson, then the governor of New Jersey, came to Columbia to lay the cornerstone at the invitation of his aunt Felie Woodrow, widow of the late USC President James Woodrow, and the donor of the Sumter Street property. On June 1, 1911, Woodrow Wilson laid the cornerstone of the seven-story building.

By the numbers

First Baptist project at YMCA

$2 million

Purchase price of YMCA building

$4 million

Estimated renovation cost


Members at First Baptist