An 11-hour attempt to save Alexandria's historic Alfred Street Baptist Church is under way, but even enthusiastic supporters say demolition of the church later this year is a very real possibility.
Parishioners who say they are proud of the church's long history find themselves divided over the true age of the building and whether it should be razed.
According to local historians, the original Alfred Street congregation assembled in 1803 as a prayer society of free blacks. Meeting in private homes, the group met educational as well as spiritual needs of the 19th century black community by providing an informal educational system for black children.
Other historians, however, contend that the present building was constructed in 1853 (a building cornerstone bears that date) and served as a hospital during the Civil War.
During the 1960s, church members decided they wanted a modern building and began making plans for a new building on the site of the old church. The parish encountered a snag, however, when Alexandria passed an ordinance in 1975 protecting structures more than 100 years old. As a result, the congregation that had once boasted ot its 120-year-old heritage, hired an architect to prove the building was younger than 100.
Theodore L. Pryor, a restoration architect retained by the church, reported to the anxious congregation in 1977 that city surveys showed the building probably had been built during the 1880s -- making the church about 90 years old.
At the time, Pryor was quoted as saying: "Between the original survey of 1877 and that of 1891, the original building was replaced by an entirely new structure.
"Apparently there was no attempt to reuse any part of the original structure, for the new building completely encompasses the site of the old building."
On the strength of Pryor's testimony, the Alfred Street congregation was able to secure building and demolition permits from the city. The chuch is now slated for destruction -- possibly this year -- and in its place will be a 21-car parking lot to serve the new Alfred Street Church.
Although the foundation for the new church already has been dug and steel girders are in place, several church members say they now want a new church and the old one, too.
"I'd like to see the old church turned into a museum," said long-time chuch member Lorraine Funn Atkins at a meeting of preservationists last week. "There is really no place set aside for black history in the city."
Atkins who joined the church in 1924, said she and many other members were unaware that the old building would have to be destroyed to make way for the new church.
Skeptics point out that church members showed no interest in saving the building during the 15-year planning phase, but waited until the last moment to protest. Several city officials said preservation-minded Alexandrians would have rallied behind church members if the latter had expressed any interest in saving the old building.
"There was a conspicuous silence at every step of the way," said Charles Huff, a member of the Alexandria Housing Authority who was invited to observe an organizational meeting of the preservationists.
"I don't mean to sound oblique but this has become a cause celebre in the white community but . . . the history of the Alfred Street Baptist Church is inextricably tied to the history of the development of the black community in Alexandria."
The newly organized group to save the church includes about 10 members -- citizens concerned with preservation and church members. Members of the group say they have uncovered evidence -- such as old newspaper clippings -- that prove the present building was constructed in the 1850s. They have hired Robert Montague, an Alexandria attorney who specializes in historical preservation cases, for legal assistance.
"The Alfred Street Baptist Church is the counterpart in the black community to the Presbyterian Meeting House and Christ Church in the white community," says Montague. "Although the building is not as elegant, it is nonetheless as important to them."
At the first meeting in his office, Montague advised his new clients to strike out on several courses of action.
The supporters decided to circulate a petition for signatures of Alexandrians who support preservation of the structure. As a second line of attack, they are exploring ways of securing a parking variance that would allow the new building to be constructed without the city-required number of parking spaces.
The Alfred Street Baptist Church pastor, the Rev. John O. Peterson, expressed surprise at new of the building movement to save the church.
"Well, this is the first I've heard of it," Peterson said last week. "It is virtually too late because of things like contracts for the construction.
"During the 1960s when we were deciding what to do, I suggested we turn the church into a museum. That idea didn't fly with anyone. It go about as far as an ant carrying a pound of sugar."
Peterson added that he doubts the city will grant a parking variance because the church already has a 50 percent variance and had to struggle to get even that.
According to several members of the group, the church was recently nominated for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. Should the building be registered before it is torn down, a complicated legal battle would face those church members favoring a new building.
Whether registration can take place before wrecking begins is questionable.
"These things often take a year or more," said an official at the National Trust for Historic Preservation which reviews all applications for inclusion on the National Register.