EASTON — The three-year project to restore the historic Asbury United Methodist Church to its late-1800s condition kicked off Monday, Sept. 29.
“It’s a highly architecturally significant church exterior and interior and we’re looking forward to returning it to its former glory,” said Professor Dale Glenwood Green, an assistant professor of architecture and historic preservation at Morgan State University and the lead historian on The Hill project.
An exploratory inspection started on the church’s steeple on Monday so architects can use the right treatments and methods to guide restoration.
The 77-foot steeple was completed in 1893. The main structure of the church dates back even further. It was completed in 1876 and dedicated by Frederick Douglass in 1878.
At 18 Higgins St. in the heart of The Hill district in Easton, the church follows the Gothic revival style of church architecture and is one of two historic brick structures in The Hill community that is still standing, Green said.
He said it’s a prominent church that used some of the “most architecturally significant material,” including the type of brick, wood roof shingles, elaborate stained glass, substantial organ pipework and a Henry McShane Bell Foundry bronze bell installed in 1897 that is still working, but needs repair.
“Once it’s returned to its former glory, it will be quite an architectural gem within the town of Easton,” Green said.
The first two phases of the project are to restore the church’s exterior and interior.
Green said exterior work includes the roof, which will be a cedar wood shake roof, repointing of masonry, wood work, the steeple tower in its entirety, the Henry McShane bell, and work on the stained glass windows.
Future restoration work includes the interior fellowship hall — which Green said is a historic area in the church where meetings would have occurred in the early 1800s to the late Civil Rights era — and the second floor sanctuary, which is still an active worship space for the African-American and now Latino populations. The church also features the original rostrum where Frederick Douglass spoke in 1878 to dedicate the church, “in which the period of significance has now been defined to guide the restoration era,” Green said.
The third phase is reconstructing a building that was known as the tabernacle, which was a wood-framed structure that was set diagonally on the rear property of the church and served as a social hall and as the gymnasium for Talbot County’s black residents, Green said.
The tabernacle building will be resurrected using archaeological and photographic evidence, and when completed will be home to a visitors center for The Hill project and its community, history and culture, Green said.
Encore Sustainable Design, an architecture firm led by Nakita Reed — a nationally recognized architect with experience in both preservation and sustainability — was chosen for the restoration work. The local architect on the restoration process is Ward Bucher, who directs the Easton office of Encore Sustainable Design.
“The church will be greened as part of this process, so it will not only be a historic church, but it also be sustainable and environmentally friendly,” Green said. “So we’re looking forward to building upon its past, but also leveraging its future by way of sustainable technology.”
The restoration work is being funded through the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture, and an African American Heritage Preservation Grant obtained by Historic Easton Inc., whose president is Carlene Phoenix.
Phoenix is also a member of the church, and is its historian and preservation chairman. She said the project is all about restoring the church to make sure it’s around for future generations.
Phoenix said the congregation wouldn’t have been able to restore the historic church if it weren’t for the grants and help from Historic Easton. She said it was a challenge to keep the building in shape, considering its old age.
Other church members at the kickoff inspection on Monday were excited about the project, too, including Patricia Lake, financial chairman and 15-year member of the church.
Lake called the restoration a blessing.
“It’s just amazing what little they had to work with that we have to keep this church standing, and here we are today so many years later and it’s still standing,” Lake said, talking about those who built and maintained the church many years ago.
“If they kept it long enough for us to see, we can do the same,” she said.
The restoration work on such an old structure presents some challenges, Green said.
The brick work, for example, has four different variations of mortar, he said.
“Mortar looks very simple, but it can be very threatening to a brick, which is essentially sand that’s been fired,” Green said. “So if someone is using cement, that’s going to be too harsh and too hard. It’s going to break apart the bricks, and so we have to use the right historic mixture.”
Another issue is the paint, because, historically, the paint would have been lead-based. Finding the right materials for the cedar wood shake shingles, is another challenge, because on the Eastern Shore, a lot of the wood shingles would have come from cypress instead of cedar, Green said.
The stained glass windows also present a challenge. Some portions of the windows are missing. For instance, a large circular window on the front of the church below the steeple is completely missing and boarded up.
“Over the years, that circular window experienced deterioration and damage, so it’s blocked up, so we have to find historic photographs that will chronicle when that was actually revealed so that it can be restored by way of pictorial evidence,” he said.
Finding photo evidence is a challenge in and of itself, Green said, “and in an African-American community, it becomes even more challenging as some of these areas weren’t documented by way of photographs.”
Green said there are two good photographs of the tabernacle structure that will allow them to reconstruct it. Also, he said archaeology “is something that’s just very secure, and so they’ll be able to use that to aid in the reconstruction process.”