African-American church a 'most endangered historic resource,' agency says

Designation likely will draw attention, money to project

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GREAT BARRINGTON — A group trying to preserve a building that was home to one of the first African-American churches in Berkshire County will now have a little extra support from a statewide advocacy group.

Preservation Massachusetts has placed the former Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church property on Elm Court on its Massachusetts Most Endangered Historic Resources list.

The Plymouth-based nonprofit agency began the list in 1993 to draw attention — and hopefully money — to historic structures that are at risk of being lost to neglect.

The deconsecrated church, completed in 1887, was long the spiritual, political and cultural meeting place for black people who streamed north during post-Civil War Reconstruction and settled in the area.

"This small church has a powerful and important story to tell," said Jim Igoe, the president of Preservation Massachusetts.

Igoe said his agency will work with the Clinton Church Restoration group to make sure it gets the support needed to restore a "distinctive example of 19th century vernacular, church architecture."

Being added to the endangered properties list could help advance preservation work, the agency said in a statement.

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"Of the more than 220 historic resources designated as endangered since the list's inception in 1993, 91 have been classified as saved, 31 have been lost, while many more are either progressing or continue to face threats."

Between a leaking roof, water damage and structural problems, the price for repair is high. But grants began flowing in last year to begin work on the $1.2 million project that will not only restore and renovate the building, but turn it into a museum and arts center dedicated to local African-American culture and luminaries, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, a Great Barrington native and founder of the NAACP.

Earlier this year, the Massachusetts Historic Commission awarded the project a $75,000 emergency grant, and then in March, the Clinton Church Restoration group received a $389,000 grant from the National Park Service's African American Civil Rights Grants Program. A $100,000 community preservation grant from the town was awarded in May. All the money will go toward stabilizing the building during the first phase of work.

After the death in 2007 of the church's longtime pastor, the Rev. Esther Dozier, the church carried on, then closed its doors in 2014. The property went on the market and sat, deteriorating, until a community group raised $100,000 to buy the site on the Housatonic Heritage's African-American Heritage Trail.

The first phase of construction, which will include a new roof, will cost about $500,000. The total cost of construction is estimated at around $900,000.

Eugenie Sills, of Clinton Church Restoration, said saving the church is critical to "a place of great significance to W.E.B. Du Bois," and that "this recognition, in the 150th anniversary year of his birth, will go a long way in helping us achieve our goal to save, preserve and repurpose the property."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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