GREAT BARRINGTON — The mission to restore a historic African-American church building is gaining more steam, with hopes for construction to begin in the spring.
Clinton Church Restoration has chosen Huff + Gooden Architects of New York City to oversee the project, which will transform the downtown property into an African-American heritage site and visitor center that will focus on the legacy of town native W.E.B. Du Bois, an early engineer of the civil rights movement.
The prominent African-American architecture firm will plan the restoration and design the building, which was the former home of the Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church on Elm Court.
The firm has worked on projects that include the California African-American Museum in Los Angeles and the Schomburg Center and Studio Museum in Harlem in New York City. It also worked on the restoration of the Samuel Harrison House in Pittsfield, the homestead of a man born into slavery who came to Pittsfield in 1850 to become the renowned pastor at Second Congregational Church.
"The rich and storied history of the former Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church not only chronicles the presence of African-Americans in the Berkshires from the 18th century to the present ... but its history is part of the thread in the formation of American culture, society and life," firm principal Mario Gooden said in a statement. He said his team is honored to "bring this story to the light of American and architectural history."
Alarmed by the rate of deterioration, a group of community members in 2016 came together as Clinton Church Restoration and soon raised $100,000 to buy what is the oldest black church building that still exists in Berkshire County, and to begin brainstorming its new incarnation as a place to honor Du Bois, the church's first female pastor, the Rev. Esther Dozier, and to honor the church's 130-year history.
Volunteers began patching roof leaks to stem extensive water damage to the deteriorating building, and the group started fundraising through the Upper Housatonic Valley Heritage Area, since the property is a site on its African-American Heritage Trail.
Soon, the grants started rolling in. In 2018, the group received a total of $564,000 in grants, including a $389,000 National Park Service African-American Civil Rights Grant. The group also was awarded $100,000 from the town Community Preservation Act funding.
Last year, the nonprofit Preservation Massachusetts named the property one of the state's Most Endangered Historic Resources. The property is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the Massachusetts Register of Historic Places.
The estimated cost of the entire project is uncertain, but restoration advisory board member Eugenie Sills said the project's initial stabilization phase will cost about $600,000.
"We just don't know the overall cost of the project yet, though it is likely the cost of interpretive exhibits and programming could be as much or more than the construction to restore the building," Sills said in an email.
The project team includes architects John A. James, Mabel O. Wilson and landscape architect Walter J. Hood.
The president of the Berkshire Chapter of the NAACP is pleased with the choice.
Dennis Powell, who also is vice chairman of the restoration board, said the architects have a "deep understanding of the significance of these spaces and the cultural issues they embody."
Heather Bellow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.