Abyssinian Meeting House restoration ramps up for completion

·7 min read

May 16—John Turk and Eric Dube remember when an underground stream flowed across the dirt cellar of the historic Abyssinian Meeting House and a variety of birds had taken up residence in the attic.

Several rundown apartments filled the former sanctuary, a soaring space that had been cut in half when a floor was added decades before, turning the nation's third-oldest Black church into a low-rent tenement.

"One room was painted totally black," Turk recalled recently. "It was totally divided up and creepy."

The apartments and unwanted attic guests are gone, the basement is sealed and dry and the Abyssinian is on the verge of the long-awaited final phase of a rescue and restoration project started nearly 25 years ago.

Turk, a restoration architect, and Dube, a civil and structural engineer, are among hundreds of consultants, contractors, craftspeople, volunteers and others who have worked on the Abyssinian restoration project over the last two decades.

Now, Turk and Dube are helping to guide the effort to finally finish the project after Maine's congressional delegation last month secured a $1.7 million federal budget appropriation for the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian.

After years of plugging along, hoping to complete the project before the building's 200th anniversary, suddenly expectations are running high.

"That's OK. I like pressure," Dube said. "It's exhilarating to finally have the money and be able to finish the project."

The so-called "congressionally directed spending" is part of more than $200 million allocated for 105 Maine projects in the $1.5 trillion omnibus funding package. But likely none of the other projects has been in the works for so long with so many people involved and eager to see it completed.

"It's no longer a dream," said Pamela Cummings, committee president.

With an additional $400,000 in donations raised in the wake of 2020's Black Lives Matter protests, the committee has more than $2 million to complete the restoration, hire an executive director, set up museum exhibits and expand educational programming, Cummings said.

Turk and Dube are shepherding the restoration through the final design and review stages with the city of Portland and the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. They hope to start the final phase by early fall and complete the project within 12 to 18 months, allowing for possible supply chain delays in sourcing building materials.

In the meantime, Cummings said she is setting up an advisory panel of experts to ensure the restoration is successful and working on a job description to advertise for an executive director. Sally Swanson, a retired accountant, has joined the committee as treasurer to keep the Abyssinian's finances in order. The committee plans to hire a project manager and a new website is set to launch any day now.

In seeking federal budget funding, committee members Deborah Cummings Khadroui, Pam Cummings' sister, and Kate Knox, a Portland attorney, said the requested money would allow the committee "to complete the restoration and allow robust programming to begin."

They described the Abyssinian as "Maine's only historic building dedicated to the quest for personal freedom, civil rights and equal opportunity for all."

"Once completed," they wrote, "(it) will serve as a historic public cultural space through which to foster knowledge and understanding about Maine's full and vibrant African American history, past, present and future."

HONORING BLACK HISTORY

The Cummings family, headed by Pam Cummings' father, Leonard, has led the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian since the city sold the boarded-up, fire-damaged, tax-delinquent building to the restoration group for $250 in 1998.

Built in 1828, the Abyssinian is the nation's third-oldest meetinghouse constructed by an African-American congregation, after churches in Boston and Nantucket.

Located in Portland's historic East End, the Abyssinian is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and recognized as a northern hub of the Underground Railroad and the anti-slavery movement. In 2013, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the Abyssinian as one of the most endangered historic places in the United States.

In 1826, six free Black men — Reuben Ruby, Caleb Jonson, Clemant Tomson, Job Wentworth, Christopher Manuel and John Sigs — published a letter in a Portland newspaper announcing their plan to build a church for the Black community. They said they no longer wanted to be relegated to the balconies and back pews of Portland's white houses of worship.

"Pardon our misapprehensions, if they be such," the men wrote, "(but) we have sometimes thought our attendance was not desired."

The Abyssinian thrived through the 1800s as the religious, educational and cultural heart of Portland's Black community. But church membership suffered after a terrible storm sank the SS Portland during a return trip from Boston in 1898.

At least 194 people died when the steamship went down, including 19 crew members who attended the Abyssinian. Two of them were church trustees. The congregation never recovered, and the church eventually closed. It was sold and converted into a tenement that was pretty much uninhabitable by the time the restoration committee acquired it.

SLOW-GOING RESTORATION

Through the years, the restoration committee struggled to raise just over $1 million to restore the timber-frame building from its brick-and-mortar basement to its hand-hewn roof beams.

Volunteer members and city and state officials pieced together funding from various sources, including federal agencies, historical foundations and anonymous donors.

Committee members credit city leaders, including former City Manager Jon Jennings, with assisting their efforts through the years. Deb Andrews, Portland's recently retired historic preservation program manager, helped to secure several grants early on to study the building and the site on Newbury Street.

"So much had been lost or destroyed, they had to find out what the building looked like from the smallest shards of evidence," Andrews said. "But you can only make incremental progress with small grants. They really needed a significant infusion. I'm delighted to see the project finally coming to fruition."

In recent years, the committee was able to complete the installation of historically accurate windows and doors that restore the building's exterior to its appearance in the 1830s. Circular staircases have been added on either side of the front vestibule and await finished carpentry. In 2020, the sanctuary's worn and damaged floorboards were completely restored so groups may once again gather there.

The federal funding will allow the committee to complete the restoration inside and out, including a mezzanine balcony to the rear of the sanctuary, fully plastered walls and a cove ceiling that once again will rise 17 feet above the sanctuary floor.

The committee also is considering a plan to build a small, two-story addition to the rear of the meetinghouse that would contain bathrooms and mechanical systems.

Turk and Dube recommended the addition after they recently learned that modern building codes would require eight toilets in a public building with a projected maximum occupancy of 300 people. City officials have tentatively agreed to only four toilets — two on each floor of the addition — because the Abyssinian is a unique restoration project.

The committee is expected to vote on the proposed addition later this month.

FORMAL FEDERAL PROCESS

The committee must formally apply for the $1.7 million through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is expected to issue detailed guidance on the process within the next month.

Recipients will be required to sign a grant agreement with financial forms to link HUD's financial system with the grantee financial account.

Also overseeing the final phase of the restoration will be the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, which holds an easement on the Abyssinian through 2071 because it provided more than $130,000 in grants for archeological studies and restoration work from 2000 to 2012.

"We will be reviewing the work that will be done," said Mike Johnson, the commission's historic preservation coordinator. "They've been very good about consulting with us through the years."

Johnson said he's thrilled that the restoration committee will be receiving enough money to finish the project.

"I'm especially happy for Leonard Cummings," Johnson said. "He understood what that building really was. His patience and continuing effort to push this project along has been amazing. Leonard has never wavered in what he envisioned for that property."

Pam Cummings said her family is grateful for the help they have received through the years and eager to finish the project well before the building's 200th anniversary in 2028.

"Finally, everybody will get to see what my family has been so passionate about all these years," Cummings said. "Now, we have to make the Abyssinian Meeting House come alive. It has so many stories to tell."