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Local group works to restore church, make it a national historic place

Central New York historians want to give the oldest African-American church building in Syracuse a second life — through a permanent place on the National Register of Historic Places.

The church, located at 711 E. Fayette St., formerly housed the People’s African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. The building stands vacant, as it has since 1975 when the congregation moved to its current location on South Salina Street. Built in 1911, the building was a hotbed of activism during the Civil Rights Movement.

The A.M.E. Zion denomination dates to 1820, and the Syracuse congregation gathered in a former Methodist church, located at 58 Salina St. in downtown Syracuse, beginning in 1837. The Syracuse A.M.E. Zion congregation was officially established in 1842, and it provided shelter for escaping slaves along the abolitionist Underground Railroad before the Civil War.

“It’s truly been a groundbreaking effort to try to save this building,” said Nancy Keefe Rhodes, a Syracuse resident, writer and member of the group preparing the church’s application for historic designation.

The century-old building shows signs of its age. Weathered bricks line its exterior, and boards cover the building’s once-beautiful stained glass windows. The only recognition of this historic building is a red “711” stamped on its boarded front door.

Keefe Rhodes and a team of historians submitted the project’s application to the New York State Historic Preservation Office on March 1. If the application gains its approval, the state office would then nominate the site to the National Register for official designation. Each application for historical landmark designation includes an evaluation of the building’s physical condition and a detailed description of the site’s historical significance. Keefe Rhodes said she expects a decision during the summer.

The Preservation Association of Central New York gave the applicants a $6,000 grant, donated last November. This grant allows for historical research on more than 80 venerable A.M.E. Zion Churches, each built around the turn of the 20th century, Keefe Rhodes said.

The People’s A.M.E. Zion Church is rich with history, Keefe Rhodes said. A local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, a national civil rights organization, operated out of the church during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, she said.

“People all across the country would have known that A.M.E. Zion was the place to go as the focal point of old Syracuse,” Keefe Rhodes said.

The church serves as a reminder of Syracuse’s lost identity, said Gregg Tripoli, executive director of the Onondaga Historical Association. “To save this building is to preserve the history of the old 15th Ward neighborhood and (the) congregation’s members who lived there,” Tripoli said. “This church is just about all that’s left of that neighborhood.”

The 15th Ward neighborhood, stretching from Erie Boulevard to East Adams Street, was demolished in the 1960s for urban renewal projects that included new housing developments and Interstate 81 construction. The abandoned church now sits in the shadows of the elevated I-81 overpass.

With boarded-up windows and a blue tarp covering its roof, the gray-brick church is in disrepair. Randy Crawford, partner at the Syracuse architecture firm Crawford & Stearns, said the church needs extensive renovation.

“Our primary concern is protecting the building from being destroyed,” Crawford said. “Once we do that, then we can get to work preserving and restoring the structure.”

The church needs new windows and doors, in addition to significant masonry work on its exterior, Crawford said. “We’ll also have to do a complete re-roofing to make the building functional again,” he said.

Crawford said he expects to recommend substantial mechanical and electrical renovations for the inside. The church is too small to be used as a worship space for the 500-member congregation, but Crawford said he expects it to be a community gathering space.

Crawford is an experienced historical architect in Central New York, having previously worked to restore Harriet Tubman’s historical sites in Auburn. “The Fayette Street church is central to African-American history in this region,” Crawford said. “So much from that era is gone, so we have to work extra hard to save this building.”

South Side residents and members of the current People’s A.M.E. Zion Church’s congregation have a personal connection to the church. Claire Enkosky, a Syracuse University graduate assistant, spent several months transcribing oral history interviews from the congregation to preserve their memories of the old church building.

“It amazes me how many people’s lives went through this church at some point,” Enkosky said. “Preserving the building is very important to so many people.”

For Keefe Rhodes, the building is part of a daily routine. She said she drives down East Fayette Street almost every day, passing by the church on the way to and from her home.

“I’ve become very fond of the building,” she said. “It’s a very beautiful little building.”