A Church in Crisis

Washington's Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church Needs Help.

The Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Washington, D.C. is a church I pass every morning on my walk to the office, but this is the first time I stop in for a visit. Gwen Kimbrough, the church's chairperson of Historic Restoration and a trustee, has offered me a tour of the historic red-brick Victorian Gothic structure, which is in the middle of a $3.5 million emergency stabilization effort.

11 most markInside, denim-clad men in hard hats and heavy boots are everywhere, scaling scaffolding, inspecting electrical outlets, mixing mortar, re-plastering walls. The need for a top-to-bottom face-lift became evident last year when huge panels of the aluminum ceiling crashed to the floor of the 124-year-old sanctuary.

"It was by the grace of God no one was in there praying," says Kimbrough, who joined the congregation in the 1970s. "It happened just before our noon service and the panels broke two or three of our pews. It could have been devastating."

Church leaders knew the 1886 structure—built with funds raised by African Americans—was in poor shape. In fact, at the time the ceiling fell they were negotiating with contractors for emergency structural repairs. But nobody believed the five-story building was a safety hazard.

"The inspector told us it was just waiting to happen," Kimbrough says. "Nails had separated from all the beams, and water invasion was exacerbated by the vibrations of traffic outside, he said. After the ceiling came down, it was clear to everybody this was more of an emergency than we thought."

Since that day last December, church leaders have hired the local Coakley & Williams Construction to complete emergency repairs, and an intricate grid of scaffolding has cloaked every wall. Despite the crews' work re-pointing exterior brick, stabilizing spires, and replacing the aluminum ceiling, the building's long-term survival remains in doubt; in May the National Trust for Historic Preservation added the structure to its 2010 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

"It's a mess," Kimbrough says above the sounds of electrical saws, eyeing the snarled construction zone surrounding the sanctuary and all the work still left to do. "And this is just the first phase.”

When the church's first congregants organized in 1821, the section of M Street between 15th and 16th Streets, NW, was low-lying and residential. The location of the church was as important as the purpose it would serve, as congregants wished to establish a permanent presence for the AME denomination a short distance from both the White House and U.S. Capitol so as to pressure the government for equal rights.

It took four years to build the AME church at 1518 M Street, NW, and the church soon became one of the largest meeting places available for integrated audiences. President William Howard Taft, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and Dr. Dorothy Height all spoke there, and both Frederick Douglass and Rosa Parks were eulogized in the sanctuary.

But today, the church is in the middle of Washington's downtown commercial district. Within the last 20 years, the building has been dwarfed by taller neighbors on three sides. "Their construction tremors compromised the [church's] wall, and there were many legal negotiations then," Kimbrough says. "They had to install support pipes downstairs to shore up our walls."

In fact, the modern buildings are so close to the church's exterior walls that, when I reach the very top of the historic building to check out a new HVAC system, I can peer straight into an office next door and get a good view of a computer's screen saver.

I follow the narrow, creaking staircases back to ground level. A two-inch-thick stack of architectural blueprints sits at the base of the stairs and the whir of industrial-size fans fills the air. The first phase of construction is set to end by January 2011, but there's much more work to be done, Kimbrough says. To completely stabilize and restore this cathedral of African Methodism would cost upwards of $11 million—an investment the church's community cannot afford, she says.

"Congregants have already given $1 million, and we have $2.5 million out from the bank," Kimbrough says. The church has applied for a [Save America's Treasures] grant to cover urgent repairs. "But every time we lift another board, there's something else that comes up that needs to go on our list."

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