John Turk and Eric Dube recall when an underground stream flowed through the earthen cellar of the historic Abyssinian Meeting House and a variety of birds made the attic their home.
Several dilapidated apartments filled the former sanctuary, a skyrocketing space that had been cut in half when a floor was added decades before, turning the third-oldest black church in the country into a low-rent apartment building.
“One room was completely painted black,” Turk recalled recently. “It was totally divisive and scary.”
The attic apartments and unwanted guests are gone, the basement is sealed and dry, and the Abyssinian is about to enter the long-awaited final phase of a rescue and restoration project that began nearly 25 years ago. .
Turk, a restoration architect, and Dube, a civil and structural engineer, are among hundreds of consultants, contractors, artisans, volunteers and others who have worked on the Abyssinia restoration project over the past two decades.
Now, Turk and Dube are helping guide efforts to finally complete the project after Maine’s congressional delegation secured a $1.7 million federal budget appropriation for the Abyssinian Restoration Committee last month.
After years of effort, hoping to complete the project before the building’s 200th anniversary, expectations are suddenly high.
“It’s good. I like the pressure,” Dube said. “It’s exhilarating to finally have the money and be able to finish the project.”
The so-called “congression-directed spending” is part of more than $200 million allocated to 105 Maine projects under the $1.5 trillion omnibus funding program. But probably none of the other projects have been in the works for so long with so many people involved and eager to see it completed.
“It’s no longer a dream,” said Pamela Cummings, chair of the committee.
With an additional $400,000 in donations raised following the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, the committee has more than $2 million to complete restoration, hire an executive director, set up museum exhibits and expand facilities. educational programs, Cummings said.
Turk and Dube are leading the restoration through the final design and review stages with the City of Portland and the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. They hope to begin the final phase in early fall and complete the project within 12 to 18 months, allowing for potential supply chain delays in the procurement of building materials.
In the meantime, Cummings said she was setting up an expert advisory group to ensure the restoration’s success and was working on a post description for an executive director. Sally Swanson, a retired accountant, joined the committee as treasurer to keep Abyssinian’s finances in order. The committee plans to hire a project manager and a new website should be launched any day.
In seeking funding from the federal budget, committee members Deborah Cummings Khadroui, sister of Pam Cummings, and Kate Knox, a Portland lawyer, said the requested money would allow the committee “to complete the restoration and launch solid programming.
They described the Abyssinian as “Maine’s only historic building dedicated to the pursuit of personal freedom, civil rights, and equal opportunity for all.”
“Once completed,” they wrote, “(it) will serve as a historic public cultural space through which to foster knowledge and understanding of Maine’s full and vibrant African-American history, past, present, and future. “
TRIBUTE TO BLACK HISTORY
The Cummings family, led by Pam Cummings’ father Leonard, have run the Abyssinian Restoration Committee since the city sold the condemned, fire-damaged, and tax-delinquent building to the restoration group for $250 in 1998.
Built in 1828, the Abyssinian is the nation’s third-oldest place of worship built by an African-American congregation, after churches in Boston and Nantucket.
Located in Portland’s historic East End, The Abyssinian is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and recognized as a northern hub of the Underground Railroad and anti-slavery movement. In 2013, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the Abyssinian as one of the most endangered historic places in the United States.
In 1826, six free black men—Reuben Ruby, Caleb Jonson, Clemant Tomson, Job Wentworth, Christopher Manuel, and John Sigs—published a letter in a Portland newspaper announcing their plan to build a church for the black community. They said they no longer wanted to be relegated to the balconies and back pews of Portland’s white houses of worship.
“Pardon our misunderstandings, if that be so,” the men wrote, “(but) we sometimes thought our presence was unwanted.”
Abyssinian flourished during the 1800s as the religious, educational, and cultural heart of Portland’s black community. But church membership suffered after a terrible storm sank the SS Portland on a return voyage from Boston in 1898.
At least 194 people died when the steamer sank, including 19 crew members who attended Abyssinian. Two of them were church administrators. The congregation never recovered and the church eventually closed. It was sold and turned into a practically uninhabitable building by the time the Restoration Committee acquired it.
Over the years, the restoration committee has struggled to raise just over $1 million to restore the wood-frame building, from its brick-and-mortar basement to its hand-hewn roof beams. hand.
Volunteer members and city and state officials raised funds from a variety of sources, including federal agencies, historical foundations, and anonymous donors.
Committee members thank city leaders, including former city manager Jon Jennings, for assisting their efforts over the years. Deb Andrews, Portland’s recently retired historic preservation program manager, helped secure several grants early on to study the building and Newbury Street site.
“So much had been lost or destroyed, they had to figure out what the building looked like from the smallest bits of evidence,” Andrews said. “But you can only make incremental progress with small grants. They really needed a major infusion. I am delighted to finally see the project come to fruition.
In recent years, the committee has been able to complete the installation of historically accurate windows and doors that restore the exterior of the building to its 1830s appearance. Circular staircases have been added on either side of the front vestibule and await the finished carpentry. In 2020, the worn and damaged floors of the sanctuary were completely restored so that groups could once again gather there.
Federal funding will allow the committee to complete the interior and exterior restoration, including a mezzanine balcony at the rear of the sanctuary, fully plastered walls, and a coved ceiling that will again soar to 17 feet above the sanctuary floor.
The committee is also considering a plan to build a small two-story addition to the rear of the church that would contain bathrooms and mechanical systems.
Turk and Dube recommended the addition after recently learning that modern building codes would require eight restrooms in a public building with an expected maximum occupancy of 300 people. City officials have tentatively agreed to just four restrooms — two on each floor of the addition — because the Abyssinian is a unique restoration project.
The committee is expected to vote on the proposed addition later this month.
FORMAL FEDERAL PROCESS
The committee is to formally apply for the $1.7 million through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is expected to issue detailed guidelines on the process next month.
Recipients will be required to sign a grant agreement with financial forms to link HUD’s financial system to the recipient’s financial account.
The Maine Historic Preservation Commission will also oversee the final phase of the restoration, which holds an easement over the Abyssinian until 2071, as it provided more than $130,000 in grants for archaeological surveys and restoration work. 2000 to 2012.
“We’re going to review the work that will be done,” said Mike Johnson, the commission’s historic preservation coordinator. “They’ve been very good at consulting with us over the years.”
Johnson said he was delighted the restoration committee received enough money to complete the project.
“I’m especially happy for Leonard Cummings,” Johnson said. “He understood what this building really was. His patience and continuous effort to move this project forward has been incredible. Leonard never hesitated in what he envisioned for this property.
Pam Cummings said her family were grateful for the help they had received over the years and were keen to complete the project well before the building’s 200th anniversary in 2028.
“Finally, everyone will be able to see what my family has been passionate about all these years,” Cummings said. “Now we have to keep the Abyssinian meeting house alive. He has so many stories to tell.
Drivers should expect traffic delays on Route 1 in Yarmouth this week