Aug. 11, 2011
BOSTON — Nestled on a dead-end street in Beacon Hill sits the African Meeting House — the country’s oldest black Church edifice. Built in 1806, it has a storied history, says director Diana Parcon.
“Up until the turn of the century it was the Baptist Church. And then at the turn of the century, when people started moving from the Beacon Hill neighborhood, the Jewish community started moving here and so the congregation sold it to the synagogue,” she says.
In between, the meetinghouse served as school, Civil War recruitment center and lecture Hall for famed activists Fredrick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. Parcon says, in a lot of ways, the Meeting House community was ahead of their time.
“People don’t think of, during that period, that people would be talking about women’s rights and childcare and health care, but they were,” Parcon said.
In 1972, the meeting house was acquired by the Museum of African American History and has been undergoing periodic renovations ever since. But a sluggish economy put things on hold until last August, when $4 million in federal stimulus money was allocated to finish the restoration. Parcon says she cried when she found out.
Boston's African Meeting House is seen during its preservation process.
“It was pandemonium. You don’t know – it was tears came to our eyes because we knew finally we were able to complete this gem of a project.”
But restoring a 200-year-old building has its challenges, says Carl Jay, the Director of Historic Preservation for Shawmut Design and Construction.
“We’ve got to maintain the exterior, everything has to be approved from the masonry, through windows, through colors, mortar — everything that existed originally has to go back as original,” says Jay.
That includes materials that may not be so easily available anymore, like the limestone needed to fix window lintels on the Abiel Smith School next door. The quarry it originally came from had been shut down for decades.
“When it came time to replace those, we identified it as being Portland Brownstone and luckily know of a quarry in Portland, CT that had been reopened and we were able to get them fabricated for this project,” says Jay.
Jay says restoring the windows was a little bit easier.
“We took them out, restored the original pine woodworking and restored the glass, single glazing, putty glazing, the original colors. The architects get involved in documenting the original colors from day one.”
But the true gem of the project lies inside the Meeting House, where four of the original 1806 pews have been restored and replicated.
“We replicated the pews,” says Jay, “but they’re made a little bit bigger for today’s body. So you’ll see the seat is a little higher and the seat is a little deeper, but again, it looks very, very similar. We kept the original detailing, the original stains, paints, curved backs.”
Jay says the restoration should be completed by the end of August. But the African Meeting House won’t formally reopen until December 6, 2011, when the Museum of African American History throws a rededication party, which will also celebrate the Meeting House’s 205th birthday.
Once the Meeting House is reopened, it will be used for lectures, community gatherings and weddings.
As for Diane Parcon, she hopes the Meeting House’s rich history and new look will attract visitors the world over.
“My hope is to attract more people and so that they will be knowledgeable about, not only the African Meeting house, but of this rich history that we have. We want that to go out to the masses.”
MORE GREATER BOSTON
Sign-up for updates from the WGBH Your Don't-Miss List, WGBH promotions, and previews of what's coming up on WGBH TV.