Palo Alto Celebrates Restoration of African American Church

 

Palo Alto's oldest African American church, saved from demolition and now zoned for office use, opened its doors to former congregants last month.

Members of the congregation of University A.M.E. Zion Church gathered in the 1925 structure on Oct. 10 to worship in the former sanctuary for the first time in more than four decades.

"It was wonderful," says area resident Ruth Anne Gray, whose grandfather co-founded the church. Gray fought for years to save the decaying wood structure. "I heard that it was to be torn down, and I just needed to do something. ... I grew up there; it was part of home."

Local developer Menlo Equities began restoring the church in 2007. "It was in such poor condition that it wasn't safe to walk into," says Jane Vaughn, a partner at the firm. The restoration, completed last year, was part of Menlo Equities' construction of a LEED-certified office and housing complex. City officials "think it looks fabulous," Vaughn says. "They think it's a beautiful job. The general public, they're just ecstatic."

After the congregation moved out of the downtown church in 1965, the Palo Alto Medical Foundation bought the building, using it for storage space. In the late 1980s, the foundation announced plans to expand its facility and tear down the dilapidated church, which had been damaged during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Then Gray successfully nominated the church to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996, encouraging the city of Palo Alto to preserve the structure.

"We stood up for it," says Palo Alto attorney John Hackmann, who helped draft the California Environmental Quality Act report that convinced the medical foundation to reverse course and relocate to another site. "The developer deserves great credit for the care they took to preserve the building. They did a great job."

The church is "the city's most important ethnic landmark," says Dennis Backlund, historic preservation planner for the city, adding that its restoration was exceptional. "Down to the last detail, it was in line with the Secretary of the Interior's standards. You wish every project was like that. It's probably one of the most perfect restorations that has ever been done in Palo Alto."

Menlo Equities is still seeking a tenant for the building, according to Vaughn.

Gray hopes the church could find a way to use the structure. "I wish I had a key. I love going in there. I can't get enough of it."

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