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Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church restoration begins in earnest

Pete Wilson, Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church congregant. joined local musician Graham Dean in a performance during the construction kickoff celebration event.
Pete Wilson, Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church congregant. joined local musician Graham Dean in a performance during the construction kickoff celebration event.

GREAT BARRINGTON — The legacy of the town’s African-American community is one step closer to being preserved and honored.
Construction began at the former Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church site at 9 Elm Court in Great Barrington on Wednesday afternoon, Oct. 23.

The work began with a kickoff event at the property, featuring several speakers as well as a performance from Pete Wilson, Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church congregant and local musician Graham Dean.

South Hadley-based Larochelle Construction Inc. is undertaking the first phase of restoration work to the site to repair and replace the structure’s roof. The firm has more than two decades of experience working on historic preservation projects, including wood shingle replacement as well as work on National Register properties, said Eugenie Sills, interim executive director of nonprofit organization Clinton Church Restoration Inc. Larochelle Construction will also work closely with the restoration project’s design team, which will be led by New York-based Huff + Gooden Architects.

Efforts to save, restore and repurpose the church are three years in the making, said Sills.
“The church’s failing roof has been patched or tarped several times since the organization formed in 2016,” she said.

Members of Clinton Church Restoration Inc.’s board have been working behind the scenes with aims of taking the National Register property and transforming it into an African American cultural and heritage center.
In addition to its placement on the National Register of Historic Places, the former church is listed on Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area African American Heritage Trail as well as the 2018 list of Massachusetts Most Endangered Historic Properties.

The planned center will honor the legacy of the local African-American community, in part by “bringing awareness to the largely unknown stories of the people who founded the church and lived around it for years,” said Cora Portnoff, a former congregant who also serves on the nonprofit’s board.

The church embodies the rich history of black life in Great Barrington, where W.E.B. Du Bois was born and raised, said Wray Gunn Sr., board chairperson of the nonprofit and a former church trustee.

“This is a great day for Clinton Church Restoration … we’re finally getting work done here … Yahoo!,” said Gunn of the start of the roof repairs. “We have worked hard to save this historic landmark in downtown Great Barrington and look forward to seeing it restored in a way that will benefit the community.”

The property has also received an emergency matching grant from the Massachusetts Preservation Projects Fund through the Massachusetts Historical Commission, Secretary of the Commonwealth, William Francis Galvin, chairperson. It is also being supported in part by an African American Civil Rights Grant from the Historic Preservation Fund administered by the National Park Service, Department of the Interior, and the Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area; and citizens of Great Barrington through the Community Preservation Act.

More than 500 individual donors have contributed to the effort to save and restore the church for adaptive reuse.
Clinton Church Restoration was also awarded a $75,000 from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

It was also more recently awarded a $75,000 grant from the Jane & Jack Fitzpatrick Trust for design work during phase two of the project.

Clinton Church Restoration currently has a request for proposals out for interpretive planning and exhibit design services, which will be tasked with helping to shape not only the stories told at the historic site, but the future visitor experience, said Sills. Proposals are due by early November.

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