Saturday, April 12, 2014

Friendly Will Baptist Church and its Tribulations with HARC

Published in the Sun April 9, 2014

Pastor Rudy Williams and the Friendly Will Baptist Church

In 1945, the members of Friendly Will Baptist Church built their church building on their own property at the end of 14th Street, right beside the old railroad tracks and across the street from the cotton gin.  On the east side of the courthouse the streets were paved, but Friendly Will was on the poor side of town and their part of 14th Street was just a gravel road with a drainage ditch beside it.  The war was ending and people didn’t have much.  Black people had even less.  No architects drew up plans for the church building.  The men of the church who had building experience just did the best they could with what they had.  They made a rubble foundation for some stone walls held together with plaster.  They hammered together some two by fours to make trusses for a roof.  Where the two by fours weren’t long enough, they spliced them together.  They ran electricity to the building, but made do with outhouses instead of indoor plumbing.

The resulting church was rustic.  It looked a bit like a Spanish mission, except that the missions were about 200 years older and a lot fancier and sturdier.

Fast forward 68 years and the Friendly Will congregation has grown from 60 to 250 members.  Fourteenth Street has been paved, the railroad tracks are gone, and the cotton gin has been replaced by apartments.  A Jack-in-the-Box has popped up on University.  The church has added youth programs, women’s groups, counseling sessions, prison ministry, and an addiction recovery ministry.  Even though indoor bathrooms were installed long ago, and a meeting room was added in the 1980’s, the facility is no longer big enough.  After thousands of dollars of attempted repairs the roof still leaks.  The rubble foundation is collapsing so the floor is a rolling landscape of hills and valleys.  Once a skunk crawled under the floor to die, and worship had to be cancelled until the smell aired out.  According to Pastor Rudy Williams, people come to visit the church, but seeing the wavy floor, the crooked windows, and the holes in the ceiling makes them ask, “Is this all you’ve got?”  Often they don’t come back.

The congregation has been collecting money and pledges for a new church building to meet their needs.  They hired Jimmy Jacobs Construction to design a 7400 square foot building, and applied for a permit to demolish the old church.  A building inspector from the city came out, and what he found was so far out of code that he condemned the old church as structurally unsafe, locked the doors, and told the pastor to conduct services elsewhere.

You would think that a demolition permit would be a cinch once the building is condemned as an imminent threat to public health and safety.  Wrong.  Enter the Historic and Architectural Review Commission (HARC).  This board gets to pass judgment on renovations, alterations, maintenance, and demolition of any building that appears on a list of “historic” priority structures, as the Friendly Will Baptist Church does.  Even though the church owned this piece of property since 1936 and built the building with their own hands, used the building for 68 years, maintained it as well as they could with limited resources over that entire period, and now find themselves evicted from their too small and unsafe facility, the HARC said that they could not tear it down, but should instead look for the $2 million required to salvage the cute faux Spanish mission facade.  Or move to a new location.

HARC told Pastor Williams that the church was an asset to the African-American community.  Williams knew that in its present condition, it was a not an asset, but a liability.

This story sounds like way too much interference in private property decisions.  Time marches on.  We should be happy when people want to upgrade and modernize a bit of our city, especially in the historic district.  Old properties are expensive enough to own without somebody else telling you what you can do and how it has to look when you finish.  As it is now, property owners are so reluctant to deal with the piles of paperwork that they procrastinate on needed renovation.  Take a drive through Old Town to see many examples of “demolition by neglect.”  A rebellious homeowner who ignore the rules and begins his project without a blessing by HARC risks being punished with a stop work order, delaying progress for months.

Rather than a regulatory commission, what if we had a group of donors who would reward property owners who voluntarily meet certain historical and architectural guidelines?  They could call themselves Lovers of Architectural Victorianism Investing in Sustaining History (LAVISH) or Citizens Artistically Saving our Heritage (CASH).  Then we would have people standing in line to keep gingerbread trim on the honeysuckled verandas of old Georgetown. 

The Friendly Will story has a happy ending.  The congregation appealed HARC’s decision, and the city council approved the demolition permit.  Friendly Will gets a modern facility which will truly be an asset to the community.  The old church’s cornerstone and some of the stones from the fa├žade will be used to construct a memorial to those hardworking ancestors who meant to build a church, not a monument.

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