Student Volunteers Restore W.Va. Church
By Margaret Foster | Online Only | Apr. 27, 2010
Last week 25 graduate students from Cornell University descended on the former coal mining town of Mullens, W. Va., to repair a Gothic Revival church built in 1917.
The nonprofit Rural Appalachian Improvement League acquired the Wyco Community Church about five years ago, intending to restore the vacant structure and transform it into an events center and museum chronicling the history of coal mining. With a limited staff, the league began contacting universities for free labor. Students from four other schools—Columbia University, Michigan Tech, Southern Illinois University, and the University of Illinois at Chicago--have donated 4,000 hours to repair the church, abandoned since 1990.
"[The volunteer project] has really snowballed," says Dewey Houck, board president of the Rural Appalachian Improvement League, which owns the church. Houck, who attended the church when he was a boy, says that when the first phase of the restoration is completed this summer, his group will have contributed $100,000. "It would have been triple that had we not had the people come and do the work."
Over the course of four days, the Cornell team removed and re-glazed all of the church's windows, stripped paint and re-painted several walls, and made minor repairs to the roof. Two architecture students provided sketches of the building. Houck estimates that last weekend's labor alone was worth more than $20,000.
"Cornell students enjoy these trips for the preservation adventure and the stories they can tell upon arrival back to Ithaca," Don Johnson, the program's graduate coordinator, said in an e-mail. "Unexpectedly, we all gained a respect for Mullens, West Virginia, and the coal mining community."
Cornell University may not have heard of Wyco if not for the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia. Last November the alliance contacted officials from Cornell University's Historic Preservation Planning master's degree program, asking them to consider sending students to the Wyco Community Church.
"It needed it very badly," says Lynn Stasick, field representative for the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia, which listed the church as one of the state's most endangered historic places in 2009. Stasick, who watched the students work the church last weekend, also helped prepare a successful National Register nomination: Last month the National Park Service listed the Wyco Community Church on the National Register of Historic Places.
Several grateful locals brought lunch—cornbread, beans, and cupcakes—to the students last weekend.
"They loved them. We all did," Houck says. "They worked hard, and they performed a task that I didn't think was possible."
Houck hopes that the restoration of Wyco Community Church, located in the National Coal Heritage Areaand one mile from the Coal Heritage Trail, will lure tourists to the poor area.
"We're concentrating on trying to clean up this mess on the Coal Heritage Trail and salvage some of our historic structures," Houck says. Next on his list is a structure near the Wyco Community Church: a Baptist church built for African American miners.
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