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Reisterstown church awarded grant to restore historic building

Fellowship Hall, a 116-year-old building that was gifted to St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Reisterstown in 1941, will have a new breath of life in the community. The building, which was slated for demolition last July, will instead be restored thanks to a $95,000 grant awarded by the African American Heritage Preservation Program, which is a partnership of the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture and the Maryland Historical Trust.

The hall was originally part of an emancipation post-war settlement that included St. Luke's Church and a school, which was torn down in 1997. Church officials initially made the decision to also demolish Fellowship Hall last year before learning of its historical significance, both to St. Luke's congregation and to the community of Reisterstown. Before they made the final decision, however, they started looking into the building's storied past.

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"We started researching the history of the building; we did have several conversations with a lady that worked for an organization called Preservation Maryland, and she actually came out to our church and looked at the building and told us a little more about post-emancipation settlements and the fact that we had two of the three — because it's normally three buildings — still standing and actually being used," said Jim Martin Jr., chairman of St. Luke's Grant Writing and Historic Preservation Committee.

What they found was that the building had a significance that extended far beyond the confines of its walls.

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"When it was built in 1898, the Fellowship Hall was not affiliated with St. Luke's but was actually the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows Lodge #1489," Anne B. Raines, capital grants and loans administrator for Maryland Historical Trust, wrote in an email. "Odd Fellows were a predominantly African American fraternal and mutual aid society which had branches across the country ... African American aid and benefit organizations were extremely important in providing death and burial benefits to members as well as, in many cases, charitable works in their communities. In 1941 the structure was sold to St. Luke's Church and became their Fellowship Hall. Fortunately, the building has not been much modified over time — most of the changes were cosmetic changes, for example, the addition of asphalt siding over the original wood siding. So I think it will be a great restoration project..."

After church officials became informed about the hall's history, they made the decision to preserve it. But for this project, they would need funds. It was at this point that Linda Percy, trustee of the Reisterstown Community Cemetery and board member of the Reisterstown Improvement Association, shared some information she had learned about applying for grants for historic properties through the state of Maryland.

"I attended a seminar two years ago put on by the state of Maryland on how to apply for grants to restore historic property," Percy wrote in an email. "I went there with the cemetery in mind. But I learned that the grants available were to preserve African American heritage. I knew about St. Luke's efforts to do some work on the church, but I didn't know about the hall at that time. When I got back to Reisterstown, I contacted the board at St. Luke's to inform them of this grant opportunity. I knew that they wanted to add bathrooms on to the church, and were trying to raise the money. That's when I learned about the hall, and its history, and that they were going to tear it down."

With her input, the committee went forward with finding — and applying for — an appropriate grant.

"Several meetings were held with historians and restoration consultants who felt this was a very worthy project," Martin wrote in an email. "Members of the Maryland Historical Trust and the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture suggested that we apply for its African American Heritage Preservation Program Grant."

The church was awarded a grant to begin work restoring and renovating the building. Martin said plans for the initial construction work are extensive.

"The first grant award of $95,000 which we are calling 'phase one' will be used for general conditions; including but not limited to architectural services, engineers, civil engineering, permits and demolition," he wrote. "Also included in this phase is masonry work to point up the building's foundation and repair the chimney. The original wood siding will be evaluated, repaired or replaced as needed. Exterior doors and windows will be repaired or replaced in accordance with historical restoration guidelines. The existing first floor restrooms will be converted to a single [Americans with Disabilities Act] compliant unisex restroom. The existing rear entry will be replaced with a entry that is ADA compliant. During this phase, we will continue to use the hall on a limited basis for church functions and gatherings."

Church officials are expecting the renovation process to take a significant amount of funding. Because of this, they have already applied for a second grant to offset the cost of the ongoing effort.

"If we are successful in receiving the next grant award, we plan to continue the work to renovate the interior first and second floors of the building," Martin wrote. "We are calling this 'phase two.' Work will include renovating the existing kitchen, providing restrooms on the second floor. Interior floor, wall and ceiling finishes will also be addressed. We may have to apply for a third grant to complete the renovation."

After all is said and done, Raines said that preservation of the hall will be meaningful both for Reisterstown's history and for the church congregation.

"Restoration of this building will tell two stories: The story of the Odd Fellows in Reisterstown and the story of the growth and staying power of St. Luke's within the community," she wrote.

Saving buildings that have such great historical importance to community members is crucial, Raines said.

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"The church, the lodge hall and the school were the three anchors of many small African American communities and settlements across Maryland," she wrote. "I think it's vitally important to preserve structures like the St. Luke's Fellowship Hall which were built by African Americans for African Americans, which have been loved and enjoyed by their communities for generations, and which in many cases have been adapted to new uses or to new owners. It's a tribute to Jim Martin, Deborah Martin, Ken Camper, and others within the church congregation that they see their Fellowship Hall not as a run-down building that should be replaced as soon as possible but as a highly significant part of the history of their congregation and their community which should be preserved. I'm happy that we are able to assist and support their efforts."

Percy said that the demolition of the hall would have resulted in a great loss to the community.

"Because of its historic significance, it would have been tragic if the fellowship hall had been torn down," she wrote. "When you walk into that hall, you walk into history. All that history would have been lost."

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Martin said that renovations to the hall will benefit the community as a whole.

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"Once restored, our fellowship hall will not only provide a meeting place for our congregation; but also for the greater Reisterstown community," he wrote. "We have plans to make this space available to various local civic groups for meetings, functions and other gatherings that fit within the guidelines for use to be developed by our congregation."

But remembering the past, to church officials, means more than just preserving history. It also means learning from previous mistakes.

"Our church and this hall is a very important part of Reisterstown's history," he wrote. "A mistake was made in 1997 to demolish the historic school house — built in 1867 — that sat behind our sanctuary. We will never repeat this mistake with any of our remaining buildings."

Reach Times Staff Reporter Elaina Clarke at 410-857-3316 or via email at elaina.clarke@communitytimes.com.

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