A Beautiful Duet

Harvard Square Church, Ballet Company Thrive in 1870 Landmark

Ask Charles Sullivan to describe the Old Cambridge Baptist Church in Harvard Square, and he will say, "It's a building that really wants to be a pile of stones." Sullivan is executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission, one of several preservation organizations—including Partners in Preservation, launched by the National Trust and American Express—that have helped fund ongoing restoration at the 1867 house of worship.

Recent restoration efforts would probably not have been possible without the José Mateo Ballet Theatre. In 1998, Scott Fraser, managing director of the ballet company, received a telephone call from the Old Cambridge Baptist Church's administrator, asking for advice about refinishing dance floors. The ballet company needed space to grow: "Finding the right facility was our major business obstacle," Fraser says. And the congregation at Old Cambridge Baptist needed a tenant "if the church was going to survive," says Ross Dekle, a member of the church's long-range planning and building team.

Boston's Open Doors

On Sept. 17, 2011, 14 historic places in the Boston area will host the Greater Boston Open House Day, offering free or reduced-price admission. The sites competed in the Partners in Preservation contest in 2009, which provided $1 million in restoration grants from American Express. Now, two years later, the public can see how those dollars and their community support helped restore many of of these Boston sites, including the Old Cambridge Baptist Church. For more information, visit Partners in Preservation.

After a year and a half of negotiations and planning, the ballet company and church reached an agreement that may well be a model for saving historic places. Taking out a 41-year lease, the ballet company helped provide funding to revamp failing structures and restore interior spaces. A portion of the ballet company's rent goes towards church improvements, and the ballet has run two capital campaigns to raise money for restoration. Jointly and separately the company and the church have received grants from the Cambridge Historical Commission, totaling $200,000, and from Partners in Preservation, in the amount of $100,000, to restore etched glass windows. According to Fraser, the church and ballet company have invested roughly $2.5 million in restoration and improvement projects since June 2000.

Among the improvements are the restoration of the sanctuary and the reworking of interior spaces to accommodate both services and performances. "Almost all of the historic fabric has been left intact," Fraser says. "And what's been added is reversible." The only permanent structures the ballet company has added are 12-foot mirrors. Pews have been removed, but on Sundays, the church brings in chairs to accommodate services. The sanctuary's floors and subfloors were removed and a new dance floor installed, and the sanctuary's electrical wiring was redone as well.

In 2002, crews repointed the church's north face, and five years later the massive Tiffany stained glass window was taken out, repaired and restored. That effort, along with the restoration of the church steps facing Massachusetts Avenue, were undertaken with funds from both the ballet company and the congregation.

The celebrated sanctuary was built at a time when Baptists were not well received in staunchly Congregationalist Cambridge. It took three years to complete the Gothic Revival house of worship under the direction of architect Alexander Rice Esty. Early congregants included formerly enslaved African Americans. In the 20th century, it became a center for the civil rights, women's rights, and anti-Vietnam War movements. Yoko Ono and John Lennon sang in the church in the 1970s. Today the church is a National Historic Landmark and part of the Harvard Square Conservation District.

Unfortunately, the building has long required extensive and ongoing restoration work. In the 1990s, the church undertook roof and dormer repairs with the help of a Massachusetts Preservation Projects Fund matching grant from the Massachusetts Historical Commission, with a price tag of more than $300,000. Fraser estimates that in the next five years, most masonry at the church will need to be repointed, a project likely to cost more than $1 million. He says the church also requires about $400,000 in window restoration. This summer, the ballet company is overseeing the repair of several windows, while the congregation is repairing the slate roof and steeple.

The Baptist/ballet partnership works well, thanks to careful planning. A modest congregation (about 50 parishioners attend the average service) uses the sanctuary every Sunday morning, for special services such as Christmas and Good Friday, and for weddings and memorials. The ballet company has use of the sanctuary, which will accommodate up to 350 patrons, most of the rest of the time, with about 78 active performance nights each year. Fraser says about 125,000 people visit the church annually, including about 75,000 for ballet classes or performances.

How can the religious and secular uses of the church work so successfully? "The ballet company is not guided by religious principles," Fraser says, "but both organizations care about preservation. We work together based on our shared values."

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