Originally built in 1967, Barth House is the Episcopalian arm of student ministries at the University of Memphis. In its prime, the humble, brick facility was a testament to old-school Christianity; complete with a pulpit, wooden pews that were bolted into the ground, a brick fireplace, and an organ.
Barth House, like many of the other student ministries on campus, is located on Patterson Avenue, yet it is owned by the Episcopal Diocese of West Tennessee rather than the university. All funding for activities at Barth House comes from the Diocese, a necessary commodity that tapered off in the years after it was built until Barth House was eventually shut down and sealed off.
Now, after sitting vacant for almost ten years, Barth House has been formally resurrected, following renewed funding and a $1 million renovation project.
Bishop Phoebe Roaf and Dr. Noah Campbell, diocesan college missioner at Barth House, outlined some ambitious goals for the space that will take place in the coming fall semester when students at the University of Memphis will return in-person.
“We redesigned the space to not just be a chapel, but a venue for the arts,” Roaf said.
During the renovations, many of the old, fixed structures, like the pews, were removed and replaced by more portable furniture, making it easier to set up and tear down for different events. A stage, along with a projector and live streaming technology, were also added.
Some of the plans that Roaf and Campbell outlined include a host of events that will involve several different departments from the university. These events include art shows, an artist in residency program, music recitals, theater, a film series, and yoga on the front lawn.
Call it fate or divine intervention, but the return of Barth House to the U of M has been a long time coming, and the two men that helped bring it back to life happen to be U of M alumni and laities in the church.
R.L. Campbell, lead contractor for the project and founder of R.L Campbell Contracting Co., graduated from the University of Memphis in 1974. Helping redesign the space brought back many memories for Campbell, who was a frequent at Barth House while he was a student.
“It was great. There was always something here to eat,” he said.
Retired architecture professor James F. Williamson also made renovation plans for Barth House, a capstone project for students in his courses. Noah Campbell stated that some of the final designs for the building were taken from these students’ work.
The renovations at Barth House took place last year when students were still mostly attending classes remotely. While the pandemic hindered much of campus life at the U of M, it was an aid in Barth House’s reopening.
“The pandemic allowed us to restore the ministry without feeling overwhelmed,” Campbell said.
He said that the lack of bodies on campus allowed the space to be repopulated slowly rather than all at once.
After obtaining an occupancy permit in November of last year, one of the first events hosted at Barth House was the 39th Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of West Tennessee. During the conference, the new live stream technology that was installed was used to broadcast the convention to five other locations in West Tennessee.
Barth House is, of course, still a religious space, despite the artistic endeavors planned, where Episcopalian students can gather and celebrate their faith. Roaf said, however, that this should not deter non-religious or students of other denominations or faiths from attending events.
“We don’t have to agree on everything, but if we can hold to the core values, we can be a community,” Roaf said.
She stressed that she wants Barth House to be an inclusive space, stating that Episcopalians themselves have a wide spectrum of views on hot-button issues like politics and gay rights, so apprehensive students should not be worried about where they stand to be a part of the Barth House community.
Roaf said that she even imagines Barth House being a public conversation space where students can talk about issues that concern them and come up with potential solutions.
Many of the plans for Barth House will begin in the coming fall semester, but students do not have to wait to be a part of the Barth House community right now. Eucharist is at 12 p.m. every Wednesday and doors are open for studying and relaxation on other days of the week as well.