07 Aug Historic Boston Inc. And City of Boston to Save Historic Roxbury Church
St. James African Orthodox – Center of Norwegian, Then Black American Activity
MEDIA RELEASE – FOR IMMEDIATE USE
Photos are available upon request.
ROXBURY– The former St. James African Orthodox Church in Roxbury, which had been under threat of demolition, will be preserved under a plan by the office of Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Historic Boston Inc.
The historic building, which served not only as an early 20thcentury center of activity for the Norwegian immigrant community in Boston but also supported black worship and civil rights activism during the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s, will under the new plan be preserved through an emergency Landmark designation.
It is located at 50 Cedar St., at Hawthorne Street, in the Highland Park neighborhood and the Fort Hill area of Roxbury in Boston.
A Boston Landmarks petition was submitted with 2,700 neighborhood signatures, and this week the Landmarks Commission accepted a study report to designate the property. A vote will take place at the next meeting. A 90-day demolition delay was invoked during which the commission reviewed the property’s significance.
The former owner has accepted Historic Boston Inc.’s offer of $1.4 million to purchase the building. The property includes an existing church building measuring 8,000 square feet and a parking lot of approximately 9,000 square feet.
At a well-attended dinner meeting last night at the First Church of Roxbury, neighbors and others asked questions and commented about HBI’s plans for the property, generally showing approval during a presentation. Questions involved parking, use of common space in the existing church building, and funding for the project.
Historic Boston Inc. Executive Director Kathy Kottaridis outlined the 58-year history and purpose of the organization, and Shaurya Batra, chief of real estate development, detailed plans for three phases of redevelopment concluding in about four years.
“This agreement with Historic Boston represents the positive resolution we have been looking for and I am delighted at their commitment to preserving this historic church in Roxbury,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in a statement. “It has been made clear by local residents that this church has been an integral part of their community for many years and still has an important role to play in the neighborhood’s future. We will continue to work closely with Historic Boston as they engage in an open dialogue with the community about the long-term future of this site.”
HBI is exploring partnership opportunities with several developers for the construction of some new housing on the parking lot portion of the site, which would partially defray costs of HBI’s purchase and work to restore, redevelop, and create new uses for the church.
“Historic Boston is pleased to partner with Mayor Walsh and the Highland Park neighborhood to re-activate St. James for the future,” said Kottaridis. “We look forward to working with the community to find a feasible and positive re-use that complements the neighborhoods’ goals and preserves a century of neighborhood history.”
Support from the Highland Park neighborhood is essential for this project to go forward, and plans will be presented and discussed at public meetings before any decision are made on the future of the property.
The church is in distressed condition, having been neglected for years. HBI is planning a $5 million adaptive reuse effort, tentatively as a live-work space for artists and secondarily as conventional affordable housing with upper story co-working space. The lower floor of the church would be converted to four or five affordable apartments for rent, and the upper floor sanctuary space would be converted to a flexible co-working or studio space.
As is customary with Historic Boston’s projects over its history, there will be a significant financing gap, which HBI will raise money to fill. The need on this project is estimated to be $2.5 million for the church alone, and sources for a large amount of that has been identified.
The sale is expected to close in the fall. The Kuehn Foundation and the Harold Whitworth Pierce Charitable Trust are supporting due diligence and predevelopment costs for the project.
The impressive stained glass windows in the church are from the Norwegian period, as is the essential design and decoration of the church. The property will provide an opportunity for historic interpretation of a period that is little known to much of Boston’s population today.
The St. James African Orthodox Church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a contributing building with in the Highland Park National Register District with significance at the local level.
BACKGROUND AND HISTORY
(Abridged from St. James African Orthodox Church Boston Landmarks Commission Study Report)
The Norwegian Evangelical Congregational Church
The church was originally built as the Norwegian Evangelical Congregational Church in 1910. It functioned as the African Orthodox Church from 1955 to 2015 and has been unused since then.
It was designed by Boston architect Edward Thomas Patrick Graham and is a blend of Shingle and Late Gothic Revival architectural styles. The building is 2 ½ stories tall with a tower.
The transformation of the Roxbury Highlands neighborhood from an early farming community to a suburb began in 1825, when a group of five Boston merchant purchased a 26-acre parcel of land through which Highland Street and Fort Avenue were laid out. Wealthy estate builders and upper-middle class businessmen were drawn to Roxbury following the extension of Tremont Street as a free road through Roxbury in 1832 and the arrival of the Boston and Providence Railroad in 1834.
Many of the single-family, detached homes, which comprise about half of the contributing residential buildings in the Roxbury Highlands National Register district, were constructed before Roxbury’s annexation to Boston in 1868. The annexation to Boston in 1868 spurred the first wave of suburbanization within the Roxbury Highlands.
The Cochituate standpipe was constructed in 1869 and signaled improved public services for the neighborhood. By 1873, nearly all the streets that exist today had been laid out. Electric streetcar service in 1889 and rapid transit service in 1901 accelerated the suburban development of Roxbury and provided the opportunity for all classes to escape the congestion of downtown Boston.
The most intense and most urban development in Roxbury Highlands occurred at the turn of the century, when multi-story apartment buildings were constructed to accommodate the continued influx of European immigrants.
By 1900, only one major nineteenth-century estate remained, and by 1915 it was fully subdivided, including the Norwegian Evangelical Congregational Church at 50 Cedar Street, built in 1910, and the Norwegian Mission Home of Boston at 54 Cedar Street which had been the estate owner’s home.
During the early 19thcentury a small number of Norwegians immigrated to the
United States. Between 1825 and 1840 approximately 1,200 Norwegians immigrated to America. Emigration from Norway to America began in earnest after 1840, with large populations settling mostly in rural areas of the mid-west around Chicago and the Upper Midwest and taking advantage of farming opportunities.
Small pockets of Norwegian immigrants remained in cities along the northeastern seaboard and worked in manufacturing and the fishing industry. The founders of the Norwegian Evangelical Free Church in Boston, David Didriksen and
Olai Johansen, were active participants in a national transatlantic religious movement, the Evangelical Free Church of America.
The church at 50 Cedar Street was one of the earliest purpose-built Norwegian Evangelical Congregational churches constructed in New England by Norwegian Immigrants. The building is considered by Evangelical Free Church of America as the “Mother Church” of this organization even though the building is no longer used by the organization. It served as a centralized cultural connection for a broader Scandinavian community across the region.
The church was constructed for the Norwegian Congregational Society as the Norwegian Evangelical Congregational Church, which had been organized in 1885. Early financial support for the fledgling Norwegian Church came from the New Old South Church.
The Norwegian Congregational Church maintained an outpost at the shipping terminals in Boston, where they could meet Scandinavian immigrants upon arrival and steer them toward this congregation to become a welcoming home for them. The Norwegian Home and Charitable Association, operated by members of the church, purchased the two adjacent houses and rear barn at 54-56 Cedar Street around 1915 to serve as the Norwegian Mission Home of Boston.
St. James African Orthodox Church
In 1955 the church became the St. James African Orthodox Church. St. James was located in Roxbury to serve Boston’s significant African American community, primarily attracting Caribbean immigrants.
The African Orthodox Church in America was founded by George Alexander McGuire in the 1920s and has deep roots in the Garvey movement. George Alexander McGuire was appointed by Marcus Garvey as Chaplin-General of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, and both the UNIA and AOC were part of the larger Pan-Africanism movement that sought to bring blacks of the diaspora and Africa together.
The purpose of the African Orthodox Church was to cast off White Ecclesiastical dominance and embrace the religious autonomy of Blacks. Firmly rooted in the Garvey movement and racial autonomy, the church fostered a sense of self-determinism among the growing Black population of Roxbury. As Roxbury grew to become the center of African American culture in Boston, the area attracted other individuals and institutions that reflected the same ideals of racial pride and self-determinism.
The African Orthodox Church partnered on rehabilitation projects with the Roxbury Action Program, founded in Highland Park, as part of the federal Model Cities Program.
St. James African Orthodox Church opened in 1955 and operated for 50 years to raise African American consciousness that came to define the Civil Rights movement.
Edward Thomas Patrick Graham
The architect of 50 Cedar Street, Edward Thomas Patrick Graham, was a prolific designer, mostly in some variant of neo-Gothic, and occasionally neo-Classical style – of civic, public, educational, health care, and especially religious buildings throughout New England and the Midwest. In Graham’s later years, he was deemed the “dean of Boston architects” by the Boston Globe.
Graham’s works in and around Boston include the City Hall Annex on Court Street, as well as the Church of the Holy Name in West Roxbury and St. Elizabeth Hospital in Brighton.
ABOUT HISTORIC BOSTON INC.
Historic Boston Inc. is a nonprofit preservation and real estate organization that rehabilitates historic and culturally significant properties in Boston’s neighborhoods so they can become useable parts of the city’s present and future. HBI works with local partners to identify and invest in historic buildings and cultural resources whose re-use will be catalysts for neighborhood renewal. HBI acquires and redevelops historic structures and provides technical expertise, planning services and financing for rehabilitation projects. HBI projects demonstrate that preserving historic properties is economically viable and that they can be functioning assets in a community. For more information, please go to www.historicboston.org.
For more information, please contact:
Kathy Kottaridis, Executive Director of Historic Boston, Inc.
m 617.799.5256, firstname.lastname@example.org
Tom Palmer Communication
m 617.755.7250, email@example.com