(Photo by Johanna Kaiser for boston.com)
The African Meeting House on the north slope of Beacon Hill was once the center of African American life in Boston as free men and women worshiped and worked to abolish slavery in the 19th century.
Now, as the church enters its 205th year, its history and the history of the city’s African American community are once again on display as the building reopens to the public after more than four years of restoration.
“It’s been a labor of love,” Diana C. Parcon, the director of capital improvements and facility operations of the Museum of African-American History, said at the public reopening of the country’s oldest standing black church last weekend.
The museum, housed in the former Abiel Smith School next to the church on Joy Street, owns the meeting house and was bustling Saturday as longtime supporters and tourists came to see the church as it appeared in 1855, at the height of the abolitionist era.
In the meeting house, visitors walked the wooden floors and sat in the golden colored pews identical to those in the building over 150 years ago. They then heard the story of the city’s black community as National Parks Service rangers spoke in front a pulpit where abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison once spoke.
“I didn’t know this neighborhood was part of the creation of [the community].” Annie Burtoff, of Boston, said after the presentation in the church. An admirer of historic buildings, Burtoff said she was excited to see the restorations complete as she looked around the 3-story brick building.
The now-complete $9.5 million project was slowed by the physical constraints of the historical neighborhood. Narrow streets and often had to use small machinery and carefully time deliveries. The economic downturn did not help matters, but $4 million in federal stimulus money gave the project a final boost to open for all to visit.
“I like having a reminder of all the events that happened in Boston historically,” Cynthia Toomer, of Cambridge, said before watching historical re-enactors of the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts discuss the role of black soldiers in the Civil War as part of the church’s re-opening.
Although the restoration focus on the old, some changes were made to the building. A new heating and ventilation has been installed but all the mechanics of systems in a vault underneath the original structure. An elevator and additional stairway were also added to the building to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“It’s accessible to everyone to have an understanding of that building...what took place there,” Parcon said, but stressed the changes “still respect the historical fabric of the building.”
The museum is open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. through 4 p.m. with tours of the meeting house on the hour from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is $5.
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