Built by formerly enslaved and free-born Black artisans, the Mount Zion Baptist Church in Athens, Ohio has been an anchor for the Black community in Appalachia for more than a century. But the building is in disrepair and needs a boost to support the robust programming--from choir rehearsals to community organizing--that it has housed for generations. However, after years of neglect, the building has run into disrepair and can no longer support the robust programming it once did. In order to help revitalize the local Black community and honor its history and legacy today, the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design worked with the Mt. Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society and other local representatives to support the preservation, rehabilitation and adaptation of the building by creating a multi-functional design for the historic church “as a hub providing social, cultural and economic opportunities for minority residents.”
Originally scheduled for in person activities June 2020, CIRD and the host community had to quickly adapt to national health and safety protocols due to COVID-19. Over the course of a few weeks, the workshop transformed into a hybrid in-person/virtual model to assure public safety. This was the first CIRD workshop to make such a shift, and marks an important evolution and new way of thinking about the program. Many activities and discussions occurred online using Miro, a collaborative online whiteboard platform, to share feedback on design ideas for the project. The CIRD team worked with Bob Reeder (Rural LISC) and Brent Leggs (National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund) to gain insight into how the project could bolster its community development and planning aspects, and what lessons the group could learn by looking at other sites of African American cultural revitalization across the country.
CIRD architects Omar Hakeem and Zain Islam-Hashmi conducted a socially-distant site visit to document existing conditions of the church building, learn more about the history and culture of Athens, and meet with board members and town officials to discuss the project’s aspirations. Joined by members of the Preservation Society, local architect Jeremy Biddinger, and film students from Ohio University, the team inspected the church and documented its current state for promotional materials. The site visit revealed that although the building has been neglected for years, its main sanctuary space is filled with potential. The stained-glass windows, which appear dull and grey when viewed from the street, are in beautiful condition and shine brilliantly inside. The original pews and organ are still salvageable and offered connection to the history of the building. The basement area, however, is mostly unusable without renovation and expansion due to its low ceiling height and collapsed areas on the perimeter of the floor.
After many conversations with the Preservation Society, meetings with local officials, and hearing stories from members of the community, a set of core values emerged as essential components for bolstering the longevity of the congregation and its presence in the area, including:
Board members discussed their goals for the project and groups started to form around elements to incorporate for the rehabilitation of the building. Using the virtual platform Miro, these opinions were recorded, color coded, and grouped. Opinions coalesced into categories relating to (1) Preservation of the church, (2) creation of an Arts Space and Virtual Hub, (3) ideas around Revenue Generation, (4) emphasizing Mt. Zion’s role in the Community, and (5) its relation to Tourism, History, and Gathering.
“What the Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society is trying to do is trying to listen to the voices of our ancestors and bring this church back to a meaningful life. We need a space here in Athens where Black people can congregate again, where they can hear their voices ring again”- Ada Woodson Adams, Mt. Zion Preservation Society Vice President, 2020
Working off the outlined programmatic goals, in conjunction with the realities of the community, the CIRD team crafted a Strategic Masterplan for the Mt. Zion Preservation Society.
Phase One of the Mt. Zion Masterplan focuses on an interior rehabilitation of the existing structure so future programming can be offered in a safe environment for all members. This will include addressing matters such as mold, structural stability, meeting code, and more. Keeping with the desires of the community, elements of the main sanctuary space will be preserved such as the pews, organ, stage, and historic stained-glass windows. The essence of the space will stay the same as it will be used as an indoor gathering and performing arts space, accommodating events such as performances, concerts, lectures, meetings, and more. The front of the church will serve as a gallery space where an exhibition honoring the history of the Ohio River Valley Black Community will be displayed until further expansion, highlighting stories and artifacts from across its time.
In the future, community members will enjoy an accessible basement equipped to help the community bridge the digital divide. The basement floor will be lowered several feet to account for the slope of the floor above. Once all areas of the basement are accessible, the space will be retrofitted as a digital learning and teaching space for the community. Equipped with internet access, computers, and other technologies, the smaller basement rooms will be used for a co-working space with tables, desks and bookshelves; private teaching and meeting areas; bathrooms; and, a warming kitchen for community and event use.
Phase Two will focus on the nearby house on West Carpenter Street after the church undergoes rehabilitation. This property will house the Preservation Society along with local agencies serving the community. A cafe in the house will provide revenue for the Preservation Society's ongoing mission along with jobs for the community. The greenspace between the structures will encourage performances, dining space, and a community garden linking the two structures.
The project’s Phase Three will anticipate acquiring the Barry House, another nearby property with historical ties to the church’s original benefactor. The focus of this phase will be to establish a permanent historical exhibition of the local Black Appalachian community, previously located in the front of the church space.
The Preservation Society quickly began to build on momentum gained during the CIRD workshop. In January 2021 they were awarded a state grant to begin developing the Phase 1 concepts further, and in July 2021 they were selected as one of 40 projects for a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. The CIRD workshop was instrumental in helping the Preservation Society solidify their dreams and develop real concepts for the building, a stepping stone to winning support from such competitive national opportunities.