Historic D.C. church lands on most-endangered list

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 19, 2010; B01

The glorious stained-glass Episcopacy Window has been removed, its empty frame high above M street now covered with sheets of plastic.

Water has damaged the plaster walls near the oak-and-pine pew where abolitionist Frederick Douglass sat. And the ceiling that collapsed not far from where the body of civil rights icon Rosa Parks rested is concealed by planks and scaffolding.

Although the curving pews of Washington's Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church still embrace the memory of those who hallowed the structure, on Wednesday it is scheduled to be named among the nation's most endangered historic places.

More than a century after it was dedicated in 1886, the red brick edifice at 1518 M St. NW, which has hosted presidents, statesmen and some of the greatest figures in the nation's struggle against racial oppression, is crumbling.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation plans to announce that the church is included on its 2010 list of the country's most endangered historic sites.

"From anti-slavery leadership . . . to AIDS education and voter registration projects today, Metropolitan A.M.E. Church has been . . . at the forefront of the . . . life of African Americans," trust president Richard Moe said in a written statement. "The church is sadly illustrative of many historic urban houses of worship that are in danger of being lost forever."

The church, swathed in repair scaffolding outside and in, has suffered water damage to its brick facade, steeple and interior walls. Last spring, part of the tin-covered plaster ceiling collapsed, halting worship services for six months. And last fall, its huge red, green and blue "wagon wheel" Episcopacy Window had to be removed before it fell apart.

Full repairs will cost an estimated $11 million, the church and the trust said. Asked whether the congregation has the money, Terry Johnson, vice chairman of the board of trustees, said no.

The senior pastor, the Rev. Ronald E. Braxton, said the church was built to be close to the seat of power in the White House, five blocks away, but with the pennies and dimes of worshipers around the country.

"When you ask me the question, 'Do you feel the spirit of the ancestors . . . who have come this way?' You can't help" it, he said. "Once you have some knowledge of the history of this building and of these people, you can't help but have some sense that that spirit is still in this place."

The church, which seats 2,500, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

It is the oldest continuously black-owned property in the original 10-mile-square parcel of the District of Columbia, the church says. And for decades in segregated Washington it was one of the largest places where an integrated audience could gather, the trust said.

Appearance on the endangered list can only help, Braxton said.

"It helps to bring the church itself national awareness," he said. "Here you have a national treasure that needs the assistance of the nation. . . . You're not restoring the building for a particular people, or a particular denomination, you're restoring the building to preserve American history."

The Gothic structure -- with towers, a steeple and numerous stained-glass windows -- was dedicated in 1886. Its roots go deep into the African American struggle for freedom.

"Some people think we colored folks are going to emigrate to Liberia," U.S. Rep. Robert Smalls (R-S.C.), a former slave, said during the church building's dedication week. "I wish they could see this magnificent temple. No, we ain't going to Liberia, nor any place else. We're going to stay here."

Eight years later, in 1894, in a famous speech there on racial oppression, Douglass, whose pew is now marked with a brass-colored nameplate, said:

"We claim to be a Christian country and a highly civilized nation. Yet I fearlessly affirm that there is nothing in the history of savages to surpass the blood-chilling horrors and fiendish excesses perpetrated against the colored people by the so-called enlightened and Christian people of the South."

Douglass died the next year, and his funeral was at Metropolitan AME.

The church hosted reunions of black Civil War veterans. Bandleader John Philip Sousa and opera singer Leontyne Price performed there. Civil rights pioneer Ida B. Wells, educator Booker T. Washington, and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt spoke there. President Bill Clinton prayed there. Singer and activist Paul Robeson eulogized a friend there.

Five years ago, the church and the street outside were thronged for a funeral service for Rosa Parks.

In 1886, the church's presiding bishop wrote: "The building is a monument to the love of the race, for the church of God, and for the good of man."

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