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In December 2016, Sage Radachowsky and Steve MacLay, atop the Taylor Rental lift, get the tarp ready to protect the roof and prevent further water damage to the historic Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church in Great Barrington, the first African-American congregation in the Berkshires.

Housatonic Heritage wins grant for historic Clinton Church

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By Thursday, Mar 15, 2018 News

Great Barrington — Efforts to revive the historic Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church got a shot in the arm Tuesday (March 13) when it was announced that the Upper Housatonic Heritage Area has secured a six-figure grant to be used toward restoring the weatherbeaten structure.

Housatonic Heritage executive director Dan Bolognani said yesterday in a written statement that his organization had received a grant of $388,508 from the National Park Service to be used for Phase 1 construction work to address the most critical needs of the property. He described it as “welcome news,” especially as the project moves to the “brick-and-mortar-repairs” phase.

Dan Bolognani. Photo courtesy Jewish Federation of the Berkshires

“This grant program for African American Civil Rights projects came along at exactly the right time, as we were just completing the critical public-input process and background materials that will inform the reconstruction process,” Bolognani said.

The National Park Service African American Civil Rights Grant Program is part of $12.6 million awarded to 51 projects in 24 states that preserve sites and highlight stories related to the African-American struggle for equality in the 20th century.

Bolognani said the Phase 1 work on Clinton Church will focus on areas of the building that most urgently need attention and will include a new wood shingle roof, abatement of mold and mildew, improved drainage, replacement of the basement floor slab, raising the building to make the basement usable, and repair or modification to the parsonage to prepare it to be used for programming and interpretation.

Officials at Clinton Church Restoration, the nonprofit group spearheading the effort locally, have said they expect the Phase 1 repairs to cost about $400,000. Last year, CCR exceeded its fundraising goal of $100,000 to purchase the building and get started on its restoration. And in late 2016, CCR managed to cover the leaky roof with donated tarps and other materials in order to protect it from winter weather.

Wray Gunn, who chairs CCR, called the grant “a milestone for the CCR to continue its mission to restore the iconic Clinton AME Zion Church for community use. Thanks to all who have given of their time and efforts to get this grant.”

Clinton Church Restoration board member Wray Gunn signs the purchase agreement for the church in May 2017. Photo: Ed Abrahams

Located downtown on Elm Court, the Clinton Church is considered historic for a variety of reasons, chief among them the fact that, at one time, the church counted scholar and civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Du Bois among its worshippers. Indeed, the town just completed a month-long celebration of the 150th anniversary of Du Bois’ birth.

CCR is also applying for a grant from the town for $100,000 through the Community Preservation Act. Click here to see the church’s application to the Great Barrington Community Preservation Committee.

Last October, three architects presented concepts for the renovation of the church. All three wanted to transform Clinton Church into a community gathering place that would preserve its history, honor Du Bois, and retain enough space for performances and other events that might produce the revenue necessary to make the new center self-sustaining.

Construction started on the church in 1886 and was finished two years later. Clinton was the first African-American congregation in the southern Berkshires, but it closed in 2014. It has deteriorated ever since, but the condition of the building recently took a turn for the worse after the roof on the rear addition failed, causing mold problems and structural decay in the parsonage.

In recent years, the church was perhaps best known for one of its past ministers, the beloved Rev. Esther Dozier, who was the first female pastor in the church’s history. She was stabbed to death in 2007 at age 65 in her Railroad Street apartment by her husband, Henry. Mr. Dozier was later found not guilty by reason of insanity.

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, congratulated Housatonic Heritage for being selected for the receipt of the grant: “These grants from the Department of Interior and the National Park Service are an integral component to preserving our nation’s history and keeping historic landmarks like this one in the Berkshires alive for generations to come.”

State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli tweeted his congratulations:

The Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church in downtown Great Barrington that Du Bois occasionally attended. The church is undergoing a renovation thanks to community support. Photo: Rachel Fletcher

The Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area is a partnership program administered through the National Park Service and serves the 29 communities of the Housatonic River watershed from Kent, Connecticut, up to Dalton, Massachusetts. Its mission, the heritage area says, “is to illuminate the diverse, rich identity of the upper Housatonic River valley region and to preserve and promote its historical, cultural and natural resources.”

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