Preservation commission blocks demolition of historic church

The effort to save a historic black church won another round Thursday with the Augusta Historic Preservation Commission voting unanimously to deny Atlanta Gas Light’s application for demolition.

 

The former Trinity CME Church, built between 1889 and 1894 at the site of the founding of the Christian Methodist Episcopal denomination a half-century earlier, sits on land contaminated by a nearby gas plant that operated until 1955. Atlanta Gas Light settled with the congregation and neighbors 20 years ago and has removed some 64,000 tons of contaminated soil from the area, except from land beneath the Eighth Street church.

AGL Gas, a Southern Co. subsidiary, had given local supporters until July 6 to identify a responsible group, raise sufficient funds and make arrangements to preserve and maintain the church after filing, then withdrawing, an application for a certificate of appropriateness last August to tear it down.

Since then a group led by Augusta Canal Authority developed a plan to move the church to another site on the same property and committed $475,000 to match AGL’s promise of $300,000 for the effort, and obtained a bid of $750,000 to move it.

Historic Augusta has maintained its opposition to tearing down the church, and a statement from Executive Director Erick Montgomery said Thursday it was of “extraordinary” historic value and the centerpiece of a Dyess Park expansion along the adjacent canal to Walton Way.

Rebecca Rogers, director of marketing for Augusta Canal National Heritage Area, said the authority’s job is to tell the story of its community, and the church could be preserved as an arts and performance space, a trailhead for the nearby canal and African-American historic district, a museum, an event space or a business incubator.

It would serve as “a focal point for revitalizing the entire Laney-Walker and midtown area,” she said.

Current Trinity CME pastor Herman Mason told the crowd of church members and historic preservationists that despite being forced from the site 21 years ago, the church remains its spiritual home and should be preserved as the “last building standing in that community.”

But the group has not met AGL’s demands, according to Greg Corbett, Southern Co. Gas managing director for environment and sustainability.

Corbett said only after AGL gave the canal authority 60 extra days and filed the application did the authority vote to approve the $475,000 contribution to the effort. He questioned whether AGL ratepayers would mind funding the company “donating a $3 million asset” to the canal authority and said AGL was under Georgia Environmental Protection deadlines to complete the remediation.

Corbett said AGL’s estimates were in the “millions” to save the church and that AGL has had several offers to redevelop the site. A similar attempt to move a historic structure in Savannah resulted in a worker’s arm being amputated, he said.

George Bush, attorney for the “Saving Mother Trinity” steering committee, said the group “thought they were in a partnership” with AGL and has seen no information about EPD actually imposing sanctions for the incompleted remediation.

“We’re never going to have the money they insist we have,” Bush said.

There’s a “significant amount of contamination” under the mothballed church that’s giving AGL “a reputational risk,” Corbett argued.

“Allowing the building to be demolished would carry other significant reputational problems,” Rogers noted. A contractor is confident in its ability to move the brick building across the street, she said.

On a motion from preservation commission member Lucien Williams, the preservation commission voted to deny the application unless AGL gave the group more time, but Corbett did not agree. AGL can appeal the decision to the Augusta Commission.

Reach Susan McCord at (706) 823-3215 or susan.mccord@augustachronicle.com.

 

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