BOSTON-The nation’s oldest existing black church building, where the abolitionist movement gathered steam in the 19th century and where the first black Civil War regiment had its roots, is nearing completion of a restoration project done with the help of $4 million in federal stimulus funds.
Gov. Deval Patrick on Monday toured the renovated African Meeting House, a three-story brick building constructed in 1806 in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood and standing just blocks from the Massachusetts Statehouse.
The meeting house, a national historic landmark, is “an extraordinary piece of our Commonwealth’s history, the history of African-American people and the history of freedom in the western world,” said Patrick, the state’s first black governor.
During his tour, the governor was shown examples of the painstaking detail that went into the project, including the restoration or replication of all original pews, wall finishes and cast-iron posts in the 1,500-square-foot building.
John Waite, whose Albany, N.Y.-based architectural firm specializes in historical preservation, said paint chips were examined through a high-powered microscope and chemically analyzed in an effort to determine the color of the original paint on the walls so it could be duplicated in the restoration.
The site is scheduled to reopen to the public on Dec. 6, the 205th anniversary of the founding of the meeting house, said Beverly Morgan-Welch, executive director of the Museum of African American History.
“The meeting house was used, of course, as a place of worship, but also as a place of school, for lectures, for music, opera even,” Welch said. “But, most importantly, to gather around the discussions to bring slavery to an end in this nation.”
“When you walk inside and walk into that sanctuary, you’re going to walk directly up the aisle where Frederick Douglass walked and talked about what needed to be done to end slavery,” she said.
“On the very same floor boards,” Patrick added.
Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison were among the leading abolitionists who spoke at the meeting house and helped form the New England Anti-Slavery Society. Leaders later met there to help create the all-black 54th Massachusetts Regiment, which fought in the Civil War and was chronicled in the 1989 film “Glory.”
About half of the $9.5 million cost of the restoration came from private donations, Welch said. The remainder was provided by the National Park Service, including the $4 million in stimulus funds.
Among the surprises discovered during the project was a chimney dating back to the time when the building was heated by cast-iron stoves; the chimney had stayed hidden behind a wall for decades.
Sold late in the 19th century, the building housed a Jewish synagogue until 1972, when it was purchased by the Museum of African American History.