Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Must to Save: The Former AME Zion Church

Former AME Zion Church seen from Center of Excellence.
Photo: Samuel Gruber 2010.

Former AME Zion Church. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2010.

A Must to Save: The Former AME Zion Church

Yesterday I was glad to attend the opening of the new Center of Excellence. I'll write more on that in a separate post. But walking down, and then then looking south through the CoE's wall of glass, I couldn't help a feeling of dismay as I passed two of the most significant and most neglected buildings in Syracuse, the Gustav Stickley House on Columbus Avenue and the former AME Zion Church at 711 East Fayette, just a stone's throw from the CoE. Both are small buildings which once had small problems, but neglect has caused more damage and the future of each remains uncertain.

The former AME is, I think, the oldest purpose-built Africa-American church in Syracuse. The modest church building with elegant stained glass windows was (apparently) designed by leading Syracuse architect Charles Colton (who also designed City Hall). This was the successor home to the famous congregation that had been led by famed-abolition leader Jermaine Loguen during the mid-19th century.

I'd appreciate hearing from anyone with information or ideas about saving this important building. Given its prime location and small size it could be used for a variety of educational, exhibition and community purposes.

July Wellman wrote in Uncovering the Freedom Trail in Syracuse and Onondaga County (PACNY, 2002): “The AME Zion Church in Syracuse was the largest African American congregation (and for many years the only one) in Syracuse. It was the single most important community organization for African Americans before the Civil War, and it was one of the most important sources of abolitionist and underground railroad activity in the region. It also represents the central importance of churches for promoting the Freedom Trail.”

The original church was at 14 Chestnut (West side of South Crouse between Washington and Water Streets). The congregation moved to East Fayette in 1911. AMW Zion still owns the building, which has been occupied by other religious congregations. AME Zion is now located at 2306 South Salina Street.

From Syracusthenandnow (

“When Charles E. Colton died in 1914, he was hailed as "the most prominent architect in the city at the time." In Syracuse, Colton's best known work is City Hall, built in 1889. Colton was educated in the public schools of Syracuse and was engaged in various enterprises before he entered the architectural office of Archimedes Russell in 1873. Three years later he established his own architectural offices. Between 1880 and 1881 he was in partnership with James H. Kirby. New York State Governor David B. Hill (Gov. 1885-1891) offered Colton the position as State Architect, which he declined because of pressing work. Colton was Treasurer of the Western New York Association of Architects and was elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 1888.”

It Pays to Look Up: Typical House Gables in Syracuse

It Pays to Look Up: Typical House Gables in Syracuse

One of the best arguments for the creation and protection of neighborhood conservation and preservation districts in cities such as Syracuse is to maintain something of the variety in texture, shape and form that creates a visually rich and stimulating environment for walking and living. In modest neighborhoods like the late 19th and early 20th century "streetcar suburbs" around where I live on the Eastside (similar neighborhoods can be found in other parts of the city) visual variety was obtained - and has been maintained - in a few ways. For those that could afford it there were individualized houses, and in Syracuse these include the many Arts & Crafts styles houses building in the teens and 20s of the last century.

Most people, however, built or bought pattern-made houses with ready made parts available from the many building supply companies that produced house catalogs from which patrons and builders could chose. The result was that on a given street and in a given neighborhood there was a limited number of basic forms for houses built at a particular time, but almost infinite detail in the selection and arrangement of details including windows size, type and placement; siding materials and size; location of bays, doors and other openings; and the detailing of rooflines, eaves, dormers and gables.

In a city like Syracuse, where snow and rain are always an issue, pitched roofs and good gables are essential (and those modern and contemporary architects how have opted for flat roofs have caused much anguish in the last half-century to building owners). High pitched roofs also provide ample attics, and these attics often get decorative windows.

The result is a visually rich experience for any neighborhood walker who bothers to look. Changes in houses over almost a century have created additional variations - some good, but unfortunately in recent years - mostly bad. Details have been stripped off, vinyl siding has often covered the original varied patterns of clapboards and shingles, and standardized windows have replaced more detailed originals. Still, there is much to see.

Yesterday was a sunny winter day and I decided to walk from my house on Clarke Street off Westcott Street down to the new Center of Excellence, which was hosting tours and an open house. I had my camera and along the way I photographed many of the house gables I passed on the east side of Westcott Street and Columbus Avenue, and the north side of East Fayette and East Genesee Streets.

None of these streets are in historic districts and none benefit from protective design overlays. These neighborhoods would be described as mostly poor or lower middle class, and not all the houses are well maintained. But many are, and others have been rehabbed in recent years by housing not-for-profits. Some of these projects have maintained original buildings features, others have stripped them away with gusto.

My message is that when the ice and snow on the pavements are shoveled and you to look up instead of where you are walking - do so. The gables around Syracuse are one of the many features that contribute to our livable neighborhoods. My neighborhood is celebrated for its economic, racial and ethnic diversity. It is also an attractive place for its visual diversity - and that is something we must maintain. Its usually not an issue of cost - but of awareness and sensitivity. Typically people homeowners who live in the neighborhood do their best to keep them looking nice and to protect the building details. But its the absentee landlords - of whom there are many - that strip away the beauty and variety of our neighborhoods - and our city. The big urban good can come from paying attention to little urban details.