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Plans unveiled for restoration of historic A.M.E. Zion church

All wanted to transform Clinton Church into a community gathering place that would preserve its history, honor civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois, and retain enough space for performances and other events.

Great Barrington — For obvious reasons, churches stir strong passions and create boundless energy. After all, they’re not only religious symbols but community gathering places. Such is also the case with the reuse of a place of worship that has been closed, especially when that church was the place where a future civil rights leader once worshipped.

On Friday afternoon (October 6), advocates for the restoration of the Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church that scholar and civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Du Bois attended, wrapped up two days of brainstorming and workshops aimed at coming up with a detailed plan for the reuse of the downtown Clinton Church, which closed about three years ago.

Architect Stephen McAlister explains his conceptual design for the reuse of the Clinton AME Zion Church. Photo: Terry Cowgill

The upshot is three architects and design specialists presented concepts for what the repurposed church would look like. None of ideas involved radical change for the simple place of worship in the Elm Court neighborhood on the west side of Main Street behind Berkshire Bank. But all 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.

Scroll down to the bottom of this page to view videos of the three presentations.

“Even though there are some divergences here … there’s actually enough similarity on some very key pieces of how the building should work,” said Joshua Castano, senior program manager at Partners for Sacred Places, a private nonprofit that supports communities that want to save and reuse historic sacred places.

“In these different design perspectives, there’s some consensus around a couple of major items for how the building is going to function, so this is some really pretty wonderful work.”

Architect Diego Gutierrez explains his conceptual design for the reuse of the Clinton Church. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Ever since a group of concerned southern Berkshire County residents formed Clinton Church Restoration (CCR) two years ago, organizers have been trying to get to this point. Earlier this year, CCR exceeded its fundraising goal of $100,000 to purchase the building and get started on its restoration.

The three architects, Diego Gutierrez, Steve McAlister and Veronica Jackson, presented visions that were fairly similar. Gutierrez and McAlister, who both practice in Great Barrington, wanted to keep alterations (or what they called “interventions”) to the exterior to a minimum, while preserving much of the interior as sanctuary and so-called interpretive or museum-style space. The kitchen and banquet area would be in the basement, along with rest rooms. Click here to see Gutierrez’s concept and click here to see McAlister’s concept.

Jackson’s was more interesting, but likely more expensive as well. On the north side of the building where the main entrance is, Jackson would put two “glass boxes.” One would house the main entrance and the other would house the secondary entrance that would lead to the rear of the building. Click here to see her concept.

Architecture-trained museum exhibit designer Veronica Jackson explains her conceptual design for the reuse of the church. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“They’re transparent boxes that literally kind of float away from the building,” said Jackson, an interpretative master planner and architecture-trained museum exhibit designer. She said the orientation of the boxes would evoke the African American history of northward migration.

“The great thing about these glass boxes is they can also be lighted so that they glow at night,” Jackson explained. “It’s the north side of the building, so it’s very evocative of moving north, the North Star, the beacon, the light, moving north to enlightenment.”

It’s not entirely clear whether such an alteration to the exterior would be permissible, given the building’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Castano said the national register does have guidelines and the secretary of the interior does have standards but most of the actual historic restrictions on the restoration would be at the local level.

“In America, the way that preservation regulations happen is entirely at the local level,” Castano explained. “This is to simplify everything. Being on the national register is more honorific, although it does qualify you for funding, so it’s complicated.”

Joshua Castano, senior program manager at Partners for Sacred Places, spoke highly of the works performed by the architects and consultants. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Dan Bolognani, who heads the Upper Housatonic Heritage Area, which helped CCR raise funds for the restoration, clarified the requirements for any potential alteration of the building: “If we continue to bring a federal investment in here, then we trigger a National Historic Preservation Act Section 106, where they want to make sure that you’re treating this historic property to Department of Interior standards and so you have to look at sources of funding and that’ll tell you if you have a lot of leeway to make changes or if you are working strictly to historical standards.”

Local businessman and activist Bobby Houston, who has been a supporter of the project, questioned the size of the kitchen and banquet space.

“The kitchen consumes a lot of money, a lot of energy, so I’m questioning the importance of the kitchen and the size of the kitchen,” Houston said. “I’m playing devil’s advocate here. It’s a very high-cost function.”

Whitney Battle-Baptiste, director of W.E.B. Du Bois Center at UMass-Amherst, said given the “symbol that this building held for the African American community, the idea of food is essential to our exchanges.”

Whitney Battle-Baptiste (at right), director of W.E.B. Du Bois Center at UMass-Amherst, insisted the large kitchen and banquet facility would be an ‘essential symbol.’

Wray Gunn, who heads CCR and is a former congregant, agreed with Battle-Baptiste. He said, a larger kitchen is “a place where everybody can come and share hospitality, food and get along.”

“You don’t want to have to go next door to the Masonic Temple to display the food,” Gunn said. “You lose people.”

Castano said all along the group had “thought of the kitchen as an asset that could enrich a lot of programming. It definitely expands the ability to offer both community programming and programming that is revenue generating.”

McAlister said phase one of the project includes stabilization of the building, roof replacement, improving drainage around the building, and “raising the building to get headroom in the basement.” He guesses that will cost around $400,000. Late last year, CCR managed to cover the leaky roof with donated tarps and other materials in order to get it through the winter.

The next challenge for CCR is to raise funds for phase one, a challenge of which Gunn was acutely aware:

CCR head Wray Gunn (in yellow sweater at right), suggests fundraising opportunities to his colleagues. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“Now that we have these plans, I think it’s going to be easier to go out and solicit money from some of the big spenders,” Gunn said. “These plans are the fulfilment of a lot of the questions that we have been asked in the past. Now it shows that we’ve gone a step farther.”

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 for good 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.

The number of closed or abandoned churches is increasing. Data from the Catholic Church alone is startling. The Catholic Church in America has seen 11 percent of its parishes close since 1988, from 19,705 to 17,483 in 2014, according to Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), a nonprofit research center at Georgetown University.

The National Catholic Register reports that new parishes are opening in the west and southwest — mostly on the strength of Latino immigration and relocations from other states. But those numbers pale in comparison to the closings. In 2013, for example, 61 new parishes opened in the United States, but 190 parishes closed.

Some groups such as Partners for Sacred Places, assist churches in staying open by helping them find ways to increase revenue, or find new tenants from the arts community or area food groups.

That’s pretty much what happened at Great Barrington’s St. James Place, formerly the St. James Episcopal Church at Taconic Avenue and Main Street. In 2010, St. James parishioners Fred and Sally Harris formed a nonprofit, St. James Place, Inc., and purchased the historic 150-year-old stone church to save it from demolition after a collapse of the sanctuary’s rear wall two years earlier had rendered the building uninhabitable.

St. James Place, which also worked with Partners for Sacred Places, now houses a cultural and educational center and the People’s Food Pantry, which recently relocated to the basement of St. James.

Just down Main Street near the intersection with Maple Avenue (routes 41 and 23) and atop a small hill sits the former First Church of Christ, Scientist. That church was bought in 2013 by McTeigue & McClelland, the upscale jewelry designers and manufacturers that subsequently relocated from a building south of downtown on Route 7 near Ward’s Nursery.

The old Trinity Church in the Van Deusenville section of Great Barrington is another fine example of adaptive reuse. Legendary folk singer Arlo Guthrie bought the church where Alice Brock (of Alice’s Restaurant fame) used to live. Guthrie turned Trinity into the Guthrie Center, which houses the Guthrie Foundation and supports cultural preservation and educational achievement, as well as providing free meals each week to those who need them.

Sometimes closed churches are bought and reused … as churches. The Housatonic Congregational Church was sold in 2014 to the Unitarian Universalists of South Berkshire, which was essentially homeless and holding services anywhere its congregants could find. The Unitarians used a combination of savings, loans and a capital campaign to come up with the $225,000 purchase price.


See video below of Stephen E. McAlister explaining his design concept:


See video below of Diego Gutierrez explaining his design concept:


See video below of Veronica Jackson explaining his design concept:


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