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African Meeting House opens after restoration

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. She has contributed regularly since 2009 to the Bay State Banner, and since 2016 to VIEW BIO
African Meeting House opens after restoration
Beverly Morgan-Welch, executive director of the Museum of African American History, stands in the newly restored sanctuary of the African Meeting House. (Photo: Sandra Larson)

Author: Sandra LarsonBeverly Morgan-Welch, executive director of the Museum of African American History, stands in the newly restored sanctuary of the African Meeting House.

Author: Sandra LarsonBeverly Morgan-Welch, executive director of the Museum of African American History, stands in the newly restored sanctuary of the African Meeting House.

Boston’s African Meeting House, built in 1806 by free black artisans and serving as a place of worship, education and abolitionist organizing, is about to reopen after a meticulous restoration of the building to its 19th century splendor.

A private rededication ceremony will be held Dec. 6, the building’s 205th anniversary; the public grand opening is Dec. 9.

“It’s hard to call it anything but a treasure,” said Lynn DuVal Luse, a spokesperson for the Museum of African American History (MAAH), which acquired the African Meeting House, 46 Joy St. in Beacon Hill, in 1972. “This building is essentially the Holy Grail for African American people and for people who are about freedom around the world. Slavery ended because of what happened right here.”

Abolitionist luminaries who spoke here include Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Sumner, William C. Nell and Maria Stewart, an African American abolitionist and women’s rights activist who was the first American woman to lecture to audiences of men and women. The Meeting House also served as a Civil War recruitment center for black soldiers of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment.

Beverly Morgan-Welch, executive director of MAAH, emphasizes that no matter what the event, a passionate anti-slavery message almost always pervaded.

“If you were meeting here as the Garrison Juvenile Choir, the songs were anti-slavery songs,” she explained. “If you were meeting here for a celebration, it might be to greet Cassius Clay, a great anti-slavery leader from Kentucky.”

The oldest black church building in the country, the Meeting House is a National Historic Landmark and a stop on the Black Heritage Trail. In the restoration, every possible original feature was kept, including the wide-plank pine floorboards. Missing objects, original wall finishes and lighting were carefully replicated with the aid of historical documents, drawings and photographs.

Morgan-Welch lavished praise on what she called “the best possible team” for the six-year project, including John G. Waite Architects, Haley and Aldrich engineers and Shawmut Design and Construction.

For Carl Jay, director of historic preservation at Shawmut Design and Construction, a key goal was protecting the original wainscoting and floors. “The floor has such significance,” he said, “because you are walking in the same building where the abolitionists met.”

At the start of this restoration, only two original pews remained. Now 59 new ones match them. The new and old pews share a rich golden hue, polished cherry trim and an unusual curved shape. It is hard to tell them apart, except that the new ones were built slightly higher and deeper for today’s bodies.

“The pews seem to embrace you,” Morgan-Welch said. “You come in here and you feel that you’re a part, that you’re welcome.”

Diana Parcon came to the project as a historical preservation specialist, and is now MAAH’s director of operations. She was awed by the craftsmanship and acoustics of the building.

“They were geniuses, when they built this back in 1806,” said Parcon. “It was a simple plan, but executed to the highest. The curvature of the walls, the semicircle of the roof, it all contributes to the reflection of sound. You can speak here without microphones.”

Parcon was also impressed to learn that ordinary people in the community — tailors, barbers, seamstresses, teachers — pooled their money to build the Meeting House in 1806.

“They wanted to have their own,” she said. “You get tired, as a black person, being relegated to the balcony. You say ‘Enough’s enough, we’re going to build our own.’ ”

Construction by free black craftsmen was not necessarily unusual. There was a thriving black community on Beacon Hill in that era, Morgan-Welch said. But the Meeting House is undeniably special, as a building constructed by blacks, for blacks.

Marita Rivero, vice president and general manager for radio and television at WGBH, has witnessed the project from start to finish. She served as MAAH board chair when the project was conceived, and more recently co-chaired an advisory council for the restoration. She is happy, proud, and eager to see people’s reactions.

“I want people to be stirred by the place,” she said. “They created a beautiful space [in 1806], and I think that energy and beauty is in the bones of the building. It inspired the people who labored to bring it back to its full glory. People really wanted to do their best work.”

Along with the restoration, additional construction made the Meeting House accessible for people with disabilities. A new brick tower houses an elevator and a new staircase. Bricks for this new tower had to be custom-made by one of the oldest brick makers in Massachusetts to match the thinner bricks used two centuries ago, Morgan-Welch said.

The $9 million project was funded by numerous private grants and $4 million in federal funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and the National Park Service, a longstanding partner of MAAH.

During the grand opening period (Dec. 7-8 for MAAH members, and Dec. 9-10 for the general public), live music and refreshments will be offered in the adjacent Abiel Smith Schoolhouse. A video will show the six-year restoration process. Visitors on ranger-led tours of the Meeting House will see the former schoolroom on the ground floor and the breathtaking sanctuary and balcony above. Coinciding with the celebration is the opening of “Portraits of Purpose,” an exhibit of 65 life-sized portraits of leaders from Boston and beyond by photographer Don West.

After the gala week, the Meeting House and Abiel Smith School are open to visitors Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

Beyond tours, the restored Meeting House will be used for lectures, concerts, meetings and social functions; a wedding is already scheduled for April, Morgan-Welch said.

Standing in the empty sanctuary, soon to be alive with guests, she predicted this newly polished jewel could push public understanding of black history a significant step forward.

“The Meeting House, restored, makes a very strong statement about the care and craftsmanship of the artisans, and about the beacon of hope and light they were shining on what a free black community could do,” she said.

“Remember, when they built this, people were scared half to death that black people would be freed and exact vengeance on those who had enslaved them,” she added. “But this, this is what they do — they create a center for education, and uplift, and organizing.”