KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) —  A historic Chattanooga church is heavily damaged after a fire on Friday, June 10. The cause of the fire is under investigation.

Once known as Highland Park Baptist Church, it was one of the early mega-churches of the late 20th Century. It was also home to Tennessee Temple University, founded in 1946 by then-pastor Dr. Lee Roberson. The church and school were once considered to be the center of the Independent Baptist movement, with 4,000 students enrolled in the early 1980s. The university dissolved in 2015 after a fading congregation moved to a smaller location.

The buildings at the corner of Bailey Avenue amount to roughly 20,000 square feet and have been owned by Redemption to the Nations since 2013, according to property records. It’s value is listed as $540,100.

Martin Luther King Jr. once visited with Dr. Lee Roberson at the church, according to records.

Chattanooga Fire Department said the Phillips Chapel and Chauncey-Goode Auditorium were heavily damaged and parts of the structures were torn down so that firefighters could put out flames.

The fire was discovered around 7 p.m. on Friday by a passerby who spotted smoke and called emergency services for help.

Fire crews reported heavy, black smoke coming from all four sides of the building as well as the roof when they arrived at the church. Fire was found between the first and third floor, the department said.

The fire department said “more extensive measures” had to be taken in order to keep the fire contained. More than 100 of the city’s firefighters required more than 10 hours to extinguish the blaze.

We mourn the irreparable damage to the structures that held history and great meaning to many in this city including the alumni of Tennessee Temple University and Highland Park Baptist Church.

Pastor Kevin Wallace

No injures were reported.

Chattanooga fire investigations team, agents with the ATF and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation are working to uncover the cause of the fire.

A “shelter in place” was briefly issued for anyone living within five blocks of the church due to smoke hazards from the fire. By 2 a.m. the fire was contained and the order was lifted. 

The cause of the fire is still unknown.