David Byrd Chapel

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, December 2004,
December 2004

Author: Grace Shackman

The stone which the builders rejected

When architect David Byrd was building the chapel that bears his name, he put a quotation from Psalm 118:22 over the front entrance: "The stone which the builders rejected." Joe Summers, vicar of the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, which now occupies the building, finds the message very apt, since the church was built from discarded construction materials and by people who were in danger of being passed over because of their race. "It's a metaphor for all the outcasts that society rejected," explains Summers.

Finished in 1987, just months before Byrd died, the chapel at 3261 Lohr Road was the culmination of his career as an architect and a teacher. A simple rectangular design with a cupola, the chapel looks much like a traditional New England church, except that it is made of concrete blocks rather than wood or stone.

In 1966 Byrd gave up a career as an architect in Washington, D.C., to start WCC's construction technology program. Born in 1921, he was educated at Hampton Institute and Howard University, and later earned a master's and worked toward a doctorate in architecture at the U-M. According to his widow, Letitia Byrd, a retired teacher and a community activist, the job at WCC appealed to Byrd's idealistic side. "He wanted to use architecture to help people," she explains. "He wanted to stimulate black students to study--to create new opportunities, lines of vision."

By the 1960s construction unions were no longer officially segregated, but they were hard to get into if you didn't have connections. One of Byrd's main goals was to get more blacks into the unions by giving them the necessary training. In some cases older students already had the skills but needed a piece of paper as proof. Byrd also encouraged more African Americans to become architects.

In addition to working at WCC, Byrd continued to practice architecture, starting with his own house on Brookside and one across the street for Letitia's grandmother. Many of his projects connected to his social activism, such as the Black Economic Development League building on Depot and a nursery school for Ypsilanti's Greater Shiloh Church of God in Christ. A lot of his projects were church related--converting the former Arnet's Monuments on Chapin into New Hope Baptist, designing and building New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church in Willow Run, and adding on to what is now Crossroads Community Baptist Church, next to Stone School. For his own church, Ann Arbor's First United Methodist, Byrd designed and built a chapel, a memorial garden, and a promenade that serves as a barrier-free entrance.

Whenever he could, Byrd used his commissions to create job opportunities for his students and for black contractors in the area. Victor Hamilton, a WCC student whom Byrd was mentoring, was one of those hired to work on the Greater Shiloh nursery school. Hamilton recalls that as part of the job, the union came out and signed people up. Carl Hearns, an African American concrete contractor, sponsored Hamilton, getting him into the trade he still practices. Hamilton says that if he hadn't met Byrd, it probably wouldn't have happened. "Growing up on the south side of Ypsilanti, I didn't know about unions," says Hamilton. "He put me in that direction."

Byrd also liked finding new uses for old buildings. He built his own office in a onetime garage on East Summit, and converted the old brewery at Summit and Fifth into apartments. In 1969, while serving as a Washtenaw County commissioner, Byrd convinced the county to purchase the old Holy Ghost Seminary at Washtenaw and Hogback; today, it's part of the County Service Center.

In 1975 Byrd bought an 1830s farmhouse and sixty acres of land on Lohr, then a dirt road. Although now across the street from Kohl's department store, the house then seemed way out in the country. Run down from years of rental use, it was a perfect teaching tool for restoration practices. Hamilton and others recall helping to raise the sagging floor, jacking up the roof, putting in new rafters, and replacing the gingerbread on the outside.

In another of Byrd's class projects--building a cupola--his students learned how to apply metal to wood. They constructed the wooden frame at WCC and added the metal in Byrd's basement. When it was done, Byrd thought it was so pretty that it should be used. He decided to build something on the land behind the farmhouse.

His original thought was that the building should be a community meeting space. "There were very few places blacks could meet," explains Letitia. But one day, "he felt a calling to build a church," she recalls. "He was very spiritual. If he had lived, he would probably have gone into the ministry. He spent so much of his time studying and researching church work and talking to ministers."

Victor Hamilton was involved in the project from the beginning, laying the concrete blocks on weekends. He worked mostly alone, although another WCC student, Terry Samuels, sometimes helped. Samuels also worked on the altar and other interior brickwork. Whenever he could, Byrd used donated material that contractors didn't need or had rejected--but Hamilton also remembers many trips to Fingerle Lumber.

For work outside his expertise, Byrd looked to the black contractors who had worked on his other projects, such as Flint electrician Tom Flowers. "He was a dear friend--more like a brother," recalls Flowers. At each stage Byrd invited his WCC students to come, watch, and learn.

Byrd's personal stantp was most noticeable inside the chapel. He designed the stained-glass windows, chose the verses to put on the railings and on the stonework, designed the interior cross, and did most of the inside carpentry, including the railings, pulpit, and chancel, where he inlaid a cross in the wooden floor.

The chapel was dedicated in January 1987. The service was beautiful, recalls J. Nathaniel Crout, the pastor at New Covenant. According to Crout, Byrd envisioned the church as "a place people could come to concentrate, meditate--a sanctuary."

Early that spring, Byrd had a heart attack. "He left home in pain one morning. At noon he drove to St. Joe's and was admitted. He never came home," recalls Letitia. He died on May 17, 1987, at age sixty-six, after seven weeks on a respirator. "On the day he died, students poured their eyes out," Crout remembers.

A year after Byrd's death, the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation started meeting in the chapel. The congregation was founded in 1984 by a group from St. Andrew's who wanted to put more emphasis on social justice issues. They had been meeting in various places--private homes, the Pittsfield Grange, the old Arborland--until Letitia heard about their need through her brother, a member of the congregation. She eventually sold them the land and gave them the building, with the provision that it remain in religious use for fifty years. She is now working on turning the restored farmhouse into a museum of African American history.

Since moving to the Byrd Chapel, the Church of the Incarnation has grown to 160 members. Needing more space and amenities, it undertook a major fund-raising effort to build an addition, designed and constructed by Attila Huth, that includes a large social hall, Sunday school space, and staff offices. To meet township standards, the church also replaced the narrow dirt entrance road with a paved two-lane driveway and large parking lot.

The new addition meets public meeting standards, so the building can now be rented out for lectures, concerts, or weddings. Already serving Byrd's vision of a place of worship, it will also fit his original idea of a community meeting place.


[Photo caption from original print edition]: A cupola created by his WCC class inspired architect David Byrd to build a chapel on his property in Pittsfield Township. "He was very spiritual," recalls his widow, Letitia. "If he had lived, he would probably have gone into the ministry."