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Restoring cornerstone of Hub’s black history

After years of rehab work, African Meeting House is set to inspire once more

Governor Deval Patrick took a tour yesterday of the newly restored African Meeting House. Governor Deval Patrick took a tour yesterday of the newly restored African Meeting House. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By Akilah Johnson
Globe Staff / September 20, 2011

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The African Meeting House embodied the spirit of the black community. Concerts, sermons, education, and political organizing occurred within its walls. It was the place where educators first fought against segregated schools, abolitionists planned assaults on slavery, and protests were held in the wake of the Fugitive Slave Act - all before the start of the Civil War.

But after two centuries of use, the Meeting House, the country’s oldest standing black church, fell into a state of disrepair.

“Remember, governor, the last time you were here there were red vinyl chairs, and the pulpit was not here,’’ Beverly A. Morgan-Welch, executive director of the Museum of African American History, said yesterday while giving Governor Deval Patrick a tour of the Meeting House, fully restored to its 19th century stature.

“Beautiful,’’ Patrick said as he walked on the same floors as Frederick Douglass.

“Beautiful,’’ he said while reading the words spoken in that space by abolitionist and education-rights activist William C. Nell.

And “beautiful,’’ he whispered while looked down on the sanctuary from the balcony, taking in the golden pews and pulpit.

The Meeting House dates back to 1806, when the north slope of Beacon Hill housed Boston’s original black community. It sits tucked behind the African-American history museum on Joy Street, and created the cornerstone of one of the first free black communities in America.

Douglass spoke there. William Lloyd Garrison helped plan the New England Anti-Slavery Society there. And Maria Stewart did something a woman had never done before: She spoke in public before a crowd with men present.

“It was this place that inspired other black communities from Portland, Maine, to New York City to build meeting houses to gather for education and to figure out how to make this country be the democracy it said it wanted to be,’’ Morgan-Welch said.

The museum purchased the Meeting House, which served as a synagogue for much of the 20th century, in 1972. Restoring it became a project put on hold because of a lack of money.

The project began in 2006 but stalled. It would take more than four years and about $9.5 million - $4 million in federal stimulus funds and the rest through private donations - to complete the project, which generated more than 125 jobs.

“A lot of blood, sweat, and tears - a lot of tears - have gone into trying to get this project off the ground,’’ Patrick said. “I am thrilled with the outcome.’’

The restoration, more than 98 percent complete, awaits city inspection and final approval. The official rededication will be Dec. 6, which is the 205th anniversary of its opening.

The governor said his joy extends beyond the physical restoration of the Meeting House by the National Parks Service and the museum. The purpose and presence of the space, he said, has been recast “as a place for civil discussion about challenging social and economic issues.’’

But restoring the three-story, brick building to its 1855 appearance, which is when it was first renovated, was an intricate process that involved archeological research and a fair amount of creative thinking.

Architect John G. Waite said the first thing the renovation team did was gather up all construction documents, photographs, illustrations, and a 19th-century woodcut to create a detailed report of the structure.

There was evidence that a chandelier used to hang in the sanctuary. And so, one now hangs there again.

They walked through the building and “literally said that piece of baseboard is from 1806. This piece was changed in 1855, and this piece was changed by the Park Service in 1989,’’ Waite said.

Paint chips were examined under a high-powered microscope to learn the color, paint type, and technique originally used. The walls are now a mixture of velvety harvest cream-colored paint and white, wooden paneling.

Floorboards were scrutinized to reveal the type of nails used and how the wood was sawed.

The light fixtures were replicated from a sconce unearthed during an excavation of the backyard. And the pews, painted a dazzling goldenrod color with cherry wood trim, were duplicated from an original that sits in the back of the sanctuary.

Some modern touches were added, too, such as an elevator and proper emergency stairwell - both to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act - and the electrical heating and cooling system were also updated.

“Everything was a specialty,’’ Morgan-Welch said. “The making of the bricks, I tell you, is some kind of process. It’s not like the bricks are the same size as they are now.’’

And neither is the scale of modern-day construction equipment, especially on Beacon Hill’s narrow streets and with its compact buildings. Some equipment had to be hand-carried. Front-loaders small enough to squeeze into 5-foot spaces were imported. And the arms of a pile driver had to be cut off for transport and welded back on once in position.

“This was one of the hardest ones we’ve ever had to do; it was just so small,’’ said painter Edward Mahoney, who helped restore the State House. All of the tradesmen, from masons to carpenters, worked pretty much on top of each other.

“It was hard,’’ he said, “But it was a pleasure. This means something.’’

Akilah Johnson can be reached at ajohnson@globe.com.