Saved: African American Veterans Lodge
By Margaret Foster | Online Only | June 16, 2009
One of the country's last two lodges built by African American veterans of the Civil War has finally been stabilized.
On June 5, supporters of Charles Sumner Hall, a 101-year-old building in Chestertown, Md., gathered to mark the end of a successful nine-year effort to restore its exterior.
After the Civil War, about 300 African American soldiers returned to Kent County, Md., forming a chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization whose leaders threatened to expel posts that tried to block black or integrated posts. In 1908, the group built a two-story wood structure as its headquarters, naming it after Massachusetts senator and abolitionist Charles Sumner. Wedding receptions, concerts, meetings, and other events took place in the hall until it was abandoned in the mid-1980s.
In 1986, a developer bought several properties in a historically African American neighborhood of Chestertown and in 2000 applied for a demolition permit for Charles Sumner Hall. The town's historic district commission researched and toured the building, eventually denying the permit.
Obscured by vines, the building "looked like something out of a Tim Burton movie," says Kees de Mooy, former commission member and now vice president of Preservation Incorporated, which oversaw the project. "Many people did not even know that there was a structure standing there because it was completely overgrown. It looked like the building was possessed by an evil being."
The National Trust for Historic Preservation's Southern Field Office gave two grants from its Bartus Trew Providence Preservation Fund to Preservation Incorporated to restore the Charles Sumner Hall: one for $18,879 in 2003 and another for $5,000 in 2006.
Chestertown, located in Kent County, Md., was named one of America's Dozen Distinctive Destinations by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2007.
Still, because Charles Sumner Hall had never been significantly renovated, de Mooy says, "From a preservation perspective, it was a dream come true. Aside from a few minor changes, it was still in mint condition, other than its structural problems."
Preservation Incorporated bought Charles Sumner Hall in 2002 and oversaw a $300,000 restoration. During the project, workers built a new foundation, removed modern siding, replaced the metal roof, and rebuilt the first floor.
Now the nonprofit is looking for an organization that will finish the interior (using original doors and woodwork that workers removed and stored). De Mooy's group envisions the hall as an arts center that includes an exhibit about the people who built the lodge: African American Civil War veterans, who marked the Union victory every May with a parade through Chestertown, an area with Confederate ties.
"Here were African American veterans banding together to build the hall, which was a tremendous undertaking," de Mooy says. "It's really incredible to think about those veterans and the courage that it took to march in the face of that public antipathy and celebrate a victory that was as much their victory as anyone else's."
For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.