Pace of restoring historic Bethel AME church as museum may quicken

dhinshaw@thestate.com September 15, 2013 

COLUMBIA, SC An organization dedicated to restoring an historic downtown church for a civil rights museum says work could begin in earnest later this year.

Since the project was announced nearly a decade ago, the nonprofit Renaissance Foundation has put $836,858 into stabilizing the vacant Bethel AME church at Taylor and Sumter streets downtown, director Mary Skinner-Jones said last week.

But the bulk of the work to transform the building into a $5 million museum and performing arts hall remains to be done.

The group recently began working with financial adviser Tony Grant to secure bank loans that Skinner-Jones said could allow a “ribbon cutting” for the project by year’s end.

Skinner-Jones hopes to get word on the loans “in the next couple of months” for the Renaissance Cultural Arts Center.

And on Monday, a committee of Richland County Council studying the county’s use of hospitality tax funds may discuss whether to provide automatic funding each year to the Renaissance Foundation project.

Said Cynthia Walters, who has led the foundation’s board of directors since 2010: “Now there’s some momentum, there’s some interest, and we’re at an intersection that is time to get this project completed.”

Restoration of the 1921 church, which is both architecturally and historically significant, has moved slowly.

Tyler Construction, which reviewed construction estimates in late 2012, has set the cost of completion at $3,668,000, the director said. That would cover the entire restoration of the building, from fixing plaster to refinishing wood floors and molding, building museum and gallery space and completing a small addition, Skinner-Jones said.

Once started, the work would take a year and a half, she added.

John Whitehead, longtime director of the Columbia Music Festival Association, said the project has generated broad community support – and impatience.

“It’s a project that’s very worthwhile for its place in the community,” said Whitehead, who once served on the Renaissance board. “However, it has taken a great deal of time to get focus, leadership and direction.”

Skinner-Jones admits the project has taken longer than anyone expected, including her.

Fundraising has been a challenge. Skinner-Jones said she has worked to dispel the myth that the museum and the restoration of the property itself is a church or an AME project; instead, it’s a communitywide project.

She said she also was naive about the rigors of restoring the building to the standards of the National Register of Historic Places. “We were thinking initially, ‘We’ll have this building open in no time.’”

Powerful reminder

The commemoration this year of the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement in Columbia could help raise the profile of the project, supporters say.

“It seems to me if there’s a moment for that church to be restored, it’s now,” said Bobby Donaldson, co-director of the Columbia SC 63 civil rights project and an associate professor of history at the University of South Carolina.

Donaldson said that from the time it was completed in 1921, the church – which embraced a civil rights and social justice mission – opened its doors to the larger community. “It was a great location, and it was one of the largest spaces in Columbia with seating capacity that allowed people to gather,” he said.

The NAACP used the church as a “waystation.” Black nurses held graduation ceremonies there. Beauticians and teachers held professional meetings. College students organized civil rights rallies.

The building was designed by John Anderson Lankford, one of the first African-American architects in the country.

“It’s a powerful reminder of a bygone period in the city,” Donaldson said.

The Bethel AME congregation moved out of the historic church in 1995, relocating to Woodrow Street in Shandon.

While the church retains ownership of the building, it entered into a 99-year lease of the property with the Renaissance Foundation, said Skinner-Jones, who became director in 2004. She is now its only employee.

Skinner-Jones said the organization has raised $2,743,720 during her tenure, which includes in-kind donations.

About $1 million of the total came from Richland County, which began making yearly contributions to the project in 2006. The amount provided by the city of Columbia was not available last week.

Much of the money raised has gone toward programming and operational expenses, Skinner-Jones said. Expenses such as salaries, supplies, marketing and special events have cost $1,571,283 from March 2004 to the present.

The rest has gone into the building – to replace the roof, remove asbestos and restore the stained glass windows.

The windows are done but remain in storage, she said. “They won’t go back into the building until the project is completed.”

Also in off-site storage are the original church pews and the beginnings of a collection for the museum that last year was named the Ernest A. Finney Jr. Civil Rights Museum. Finney retired as chief justice of the S.C. Supreme Court.

Skinner-Jones said she has collected donations of artifacts and documents related to church life – collection plates, Sunday-school books, church programs. The United Black Fund also has donated 200 portraits of its Hall of Fame members.

County commitments

Three tourist agencies get hospitality tax funds from Richland County Council each year without fail.

A council committee studying the county’s $5.4 million-a-year fund has been asked to weigh whether the Renaissance Foundation should get that coveted treatment.

But Councilman Paul Livingston, one of the foundation’s biggest allies, said that given the county’s past commitments, he wants to wait until construction is complete and the doors are open before considering the Renaissance Foundation for guaranteed funding.

“I think it needs to be for operations, once they get up and running,” he said. “After they’ve identified all the funds for their capital plan, so that’s taken care of.”

On a visit to the building last week, Skinner-Jones said she frequently gets requests from people who want to perform in the church or just peek inside. “The acoustics are so good in this building,” she said.

The structure is basically two large rooms – a first-floor fellowship hall and second-story sanctuary, all done in pine floors, plaster walls and tin ceiling tiles.

A structural engineer once told her he was surprised how sturdy the church remains, Skinner-Jones said.

“I see opening night,” she said, gazing across the expansive room. “It’ll be something like we’ve never seen in Columbia.”

Renaissance Foundation board of directors

Cynthia Walters, chairwoman

Charles Austin

Rev. Ronnie Brailsford

Dan Cook

Vince Ford

Jean Hopkins

Reggie Lloyd

Elise Martin

The Renaissance Foundation presents ...

What: “Preserving Gospel Heritage” with the Rev. Shirley Caesar

When: Sunday, Sept. 22, 6 p.m.

Where: The Koger Center for the Arts

Tickets: $35, $27.50, $20 or $15 with student ID, available at the Carolina Coliseum Box Office, (803) 251-2222; online, www.capitoltickets.com; or by calling the Renaissance Foundation, (803) 733-5634.

Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.


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