New Orleans' Mother Church
Damaged by Katrina, an African American icon will one day reopen as a training center.
By Zoie Clift | Online Only | Feb. 7, 2011
The c. 1873 Wesley United Methodist Church in New Orleans is a sight to behold.
"When I first walked into the Wesley's upstairs sanctuary and saw those 30-foot walls … those ceiling beams of black hardwood, those Spanish Gothic arches strung overhead, and that monumental pipe organ at back of the pulpit stage, I said what many have said on stepping into the space: 'Wow,'" says Don Paul, executive director of Restore Wesley United, which is overseeing the church's stabilization.
The building at 2517 Jackson Avenue in the Central City neighborhood was home to the city's second oldest and the United States' eighth oldest African American church until Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. Now the two-story, 9,750-square-foot building is being converted into a center for training in the digital arts.
The history of Wesley United dates to 1838, when a group of black and white New Orleanians united by a commitment to the abolition of slavery, founded a church inside of a horse stable on the corner of Baronne and Gravier streets. Six years later, the congregation completed a new brick building at the corner of Perdido and Lasalle streets. Enslaved African Americans from nearby plantations worked on the construction in their off hours.
Because the church gave birth to so many other African American Methodist congregations, it soon became known as "Mother Wesley." It served as a meeting place for abolitionists and those involved in the Underground Railroad.
"The Wesley continued to be a nexus for progress," Don Paul says. For instance, it launched the city's first public school and the first multi-racial school. It hosted speakers like Mary Todd Lincoln, who read the Emancipation Proclamation in the Wesley; Mary McLeod Bethune; Marcus Garvey; and even movie directors D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, and other famous musicians grew up in Central City.
The Wesley congregation relocated to Jackson Avenue in 1951, due to construction of New Orleans' Civic Center. Despite the move, the church maintained its role as a community hub, especially during the Civil Rights movement.
When Hurricane Katrina hit, storm winds damaged the roof, and the congregation was forced to flee. Between September 2005 and November 2009, the church suffered from water damage and disuse. "But it's so solid and elegant in its basic construction," Paul says. "The more you uncover, the more you see the ingenuity of its builders in the post Civil War 19th-century and how much care and pride went into it."
According to Paul and Sakura Koné, national campaign coordinator of Restore Wesley United, the group is committed to stabilizing and enhancing as much of the building as possible. This winter, workers are installing metal panels over the roof for optimal use of solar energy.
"Restoration would be the goal if sufficient funding would be available," says Patty Gay, executive director of the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans. "Meanwhile, it's important to stabilize the building, and some restoration work has been done."
Gay, who serves on the Advisory Board for Restore Wesley United, says the group is saving and putting to use a historic landmark in a National Register Historic District. She adds that the project generates awareness of pre-Civil War abolitionist activity in the city, sparks economic development, and has an inspiring vision. "In conjunction with other efforts in Central City, there is great hope for revitalization there," she says. "In particular, it's critical to attract homebuyers to Central City."
Structural rehabilitation of the building began in 2009. The piers under the front towers were shored up thanks to a $19,000 grant from the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation. Author Dave Eggers' Zeitoun Foundation has donated $10,000. The National Trust for Historic Preservation's Southern Office donated $1,000 toward engineering studies for the church's rehabilitation. Don Paul estimates that the building can be made functional for less than $300,000.
He says that workers (including volunteers, university students, and paid tradespeople) are containing costs by retaining original bricks and pine flooring, and replacing decking with old wood donated by the Preservation Resource Center. (The only new materials will be those that boost energy efficiency—like the standing-seam metal roof—and those that will be used in the digital arts training center, Paul says.) The building's 1870s-to-1890s limestone mortar is holding up, and workers are using donated limestone mortar for repairs. Two stained-glass windows were recently restored.
"So much of it is so solid and fine," Paul says. "When we dug down beneath the front towers, we found a slab of bricks and cement more than four feet thick that was the builders' base back in Reconstruction days."
To date, the foundation and walls have been stabilized, windows repaired, and a new roof completed. Some beams and columns have also been replaced, and crews have replastered some of the stairway walls. But there is still work to be done. "We still have electrical, plumbing, flooring, and a substantial amount of structural work inside the bell tower to do before the building is ready for use as a training center," Paul says.
Creating a digital arts center in the old church was Paul's idea, part of his plan to offer opportunities to residents of the disadvantaged neighborhood. "Central City needs education and employment that are appealing to a longtime population and especially to its young people," he says. "Central City can make contributions to world culture in the 21st century comparable to Joe Oliver's, Louis Armstrong's, Kid Ory's, and the Dew Drop Inn's."
To Paul, the need for a training center was obvious. Twenty-three feature films were shot in Louisiana in 2009, but little pre- or post-production work could be completed in the state, which lacks skilled personnel and facilities. He aims to change that, and says his dream is drawing growing local support. "Folks are becoming more aware," Paul says. "They're stopping into the building more."
Paul hopes that, like the church, the center will serve as a beacon of progress for the community. After all, he says, "It offers education, employment, and a beautiful, historical space for creativity."
Zoie Clift is a freelance writer based in Louisiana.
Zoie Clift is a freelance writer based in Louisiana.
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