Efforts might pay off in saving historic AME Church in Watertown

·4 min read

Nov. 24—WATERTOWN — Neighbors of Watertown Executive Director Reginald J. Schweitzer Jr. just might be the man to help save the historic Thomas Memorial AME Zion Church on Morrison Street.

The fate of the historic landmark has been uncertain for years. The church, 715 Morrison St., has sat mostly ignored after its last members died, with the building in need of repairs.

Mr. Schweitzer could end up taking over ownership of the property in June.

"I want to preserve it," he said last week.

Mr. Schweitzer is among a small group of interested people from across the state working to do just that.

One by one, they've come together to work on saving the church. Retired SUNY Oswego history professor Judith Wellman, whose business, Historical New York Research Associates, focuses on historic sites, has spearheaded efforts to save it.

Others have since become involved.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted some of that work — until just recently.

The small group got together for a Zoom meeting about a month ago when they learned how Mr. Schweitzer might become the church's new owner.

In June 2020, Mr. Schweitzer purchased the building's tax sale certificate during a public auction held by the city Comptroller's Office. Partly because the auction was held during the pandemic, the transaction went unnoticed. He also didn't purchase the tax sale certificate in his name but through an LLC that he owns. His $854.28 investment could save the building from worsening conditions and possible demolition.

If no one pays the $2,140 in back taxes by June, the property will be transferred to him.

"It's good news," said Erin Tobin, executive director of Adirondack Architectural Heritage and former vice president for policy and preservation at the Preservation League of New York State.

She's known Mr. Schweitzer for years and has worked with Neighbors of Watertown on projects.

So why did he get involved?

"Just in case," he said, adding that he thought he could become the difference in saving it. "If I could help, I certainly will."

But the current ownership of the AME church remains an issue. City Assessor Brian S. Phelps said the city still doesn't know who or what entity is its owner, with no one coming forward to pay property taxes on it in several years.

The Rev. Daren Jaime, who leads the AME Zion Church in Syracuse, was the last one to pay the back taxes, but he hasn't had any involvement in the property since.

The group of preservationists tried unsuccessfully many times to contact him to see if he has any continued interest in the church.

Having been so long since he has shown an interest, Mr. Phelps doesn't think the reverend will come forward again to pay the current back taxes.

Another member of the group, Richard Margolis, a Thousand Island Park summer resident, photographer and preservationist, first learned about the AME church about two years ago and immediately became interested in saving it.

Mr. Margolis, whose 300 photographs appear in his book, "Stone Houses of Jefferson County," said the church is one of the most interesting historic buildings in the region.

"It would be a real tragedy if it was demolished," Mr. Margolis said.

If the ownership issue can be resolved, he thinks that the group will be able to immediately raise between $20,000 and $40,000 to make the necessary repairs to avoid further deterioration of the building.

An outdoor inspection of the building by the city's Code Enforcement Office determined three years ago that the steeple and chimney are deteriorated and apparently have become detached from the building.

Mr. Margolis thinks that available funding is out there to restore the building. He also said the group might soon have other news about its efforts but would not elaborate.

Shawntesha Ingram, a retired Fort Drum soldier who attended the AME church when she lived in the area, also is involved in the effort. She now lives in Germany but has organized some of the recent efforts.

When she was still working for the city, now retired Code Enforcement Supervisor Carolyn Meunier also spurred interest in saving the church.

For decades, William E. "Buster" Crabbe, the building undertaker and a church trustee, took care of the building until he died in 2017 at the age of 81.

While the building was erected in 1909, Watertown's AME Zion Church traces its roots back to the Underground Railroad in the 1800s.

At least one church associate was a freed slave. Professor Henry Barr escaped a Kentucky plantation before the Civil War, made it to Montreal and then moved to Watertown, where he became a member of the church when it was holding services at the meetinghouse at 446 River St. He died on Feb. 19, 1902, somewhere between the ages of 70 and 80.

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