Saving Grace: Community Works to Restore Historic Church

Neighbors and members of the Loudoun County Design Cabinet - architects, planners, landscapers, engineers all gathered at the Quaker Meetinghouse to talk about how to restore Grace Methodist Episcopal Church, on Brooks Lane in Lincoln. (Photo by Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now)
Neighbors and members of the Loudoun County Design Cabinet – architects, planners, landscapers, engineers all gathered at the Quaker Meetinghouse to talk about how to restore Grace Methodist Episcopal Church, on Brooks Lane in Lincoln.
(Photo by Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now)

The future of a 130-year-old church building in Lincoln is getting new attention from some of the county’s most creative architectural minds.

The Loudoun County Design Cabinet spent Friday meeting with area residents in the village’s Quaker Meeting House to discuss options to bring new life to the Grace Methodist Episcopal Church building.

The congregation got its start in 1872, meeting at Lincoln School B, believed to be the first public school for black children in the commonwealth. In 1884, Quakers and freed slaves began building the church, a simple two-story fieldstone structure that included a bell forged at the Purcellville Foundry. The basement was used as a vocational school where Quakers taught sewing, cooking, shoe repairs and other skills to the black community.

Active use of the building ended in 1950.

Efforts to restore the building began in 2002, when the Lincoln Preservation Foundation and the owner of the church, Grace Annex in Purcellville, joined

UNITED STATES - April 22, 2016: Along Brooks Lane in Lincoln Virginia is the post Civil War era Grace Methodist Episcopal Church that was built by Quakers and African-Americans in the community and was one of the first legal black churches to be built in Lincoln. (Photo by Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now)
Along Brooks Lane in Lincoln Virginia is the post Civil War-era Grace Methodist Episcopal Church that was built by Quakers and African-Americans in the community (Photo by Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now)

forces. The idea was to use the property as a black history museum. So far, the “Saving Grace” project has resulted in the stabilization of the church structure and roof. More recently a nonprofit that formed to carry the project forward hopes to raise between $500,000 and $600,000, according to Grace Annex Trustee Jeffrey Jackson. That money would be used to restore the church and convert it into the Grace Multicultural Center.

Enter the Design Cabinet, which is composed of architects, engineers, landscapers, planners and botanists, among others, who live and work in Loudoun and who volunteer their time for community projects.

Design Cabinet Chairman Al Hansen, an architect, and planner Milt Herd noted concerns they heard about the proposal, centered mostly on the “how” and the “what” of the plans, with lots of questions focused on traffic and public safety issues.

Purcellville resident Reggie Simms said the church should be used to honor the black veterans of all U.S. wars. “I’m very passionate about the building,” he said, noting his great-grandmother attended the services there. However, a neighbor worried that Grace Church was not the right place for it, one adding, “We can’t handle that traffic.”

“We’re here to listen,” Hansen said, noting the building has the potential for a variety of uses. “We have an architect for each of them … but there’s no perfect solution.”

“How would you like to see that building used? What’s important? What does it need to say?” Herd asked the group.

The church is located at the end of a one-lane dead-end street off Lincoln Road. Houses have built up along Brooks Lane and residents, particularly those with young children, expressed concerns about increased traffic, as well as the potential for odors from trash and portable toilets that would be required to serve increased visitation.

Many were in favor of an education center or living museum.

“But, not further than that,” one speaker said, citing the mention of “events” as a factor that would inevitably draw increased traffic to the village. When Hansen asked if weddings should be permitted, there was a chorus of “No.” He noted there were two issues: the restoration of the building and then the management of uses, including traffic and other neighborhood concerns. But Patti Rasmussen said “you can’t separate the design issue from traffic.”

“We can design for both—restoration and activity—and the village can decide how to manage it and what you would put up with. It’s your decision,” Hansen said.

Another speaker said the Quaker connection should be emphasized: “There was close involvement—it was a unique relationship not found elsewhere.”

Architect Al Gooden agreed. “The story is an early sign of inclusion. The reaching out of the community is a message that should be worth telling,” he said.

The Design Cabinet has already conducted a traffic-calming workshop for Lincoln, and Hansen said walking to the church should be emphasized. Later, Jackson noted that the adjacent Mt. Olive Baptist Church could allow buses carrying visitors to park on its property and walk to the church.

Resident Jean Brown said that Mt. Olive, as another African-American church, “needs to be part of the project.”

It was the “events” part of the proposal that drew the most criticism, but it may have to be part of the discussion going forward.

Carol Dukes, representing the Lincoln Preservation Foundation, said that the partnership with Grace Annex is to help the church restore the building. “That’s how it all started,” she said. “But we can’t get funding just to restore the church. We’re trying to come up with ideas that would satisfy the granting groups,” she said, noting they seem focused on events, such as weddings.

“We’re starting over, trying to appeal to donors,” she said. “We need your ideas,” Dukes said.

Jackson told the group that all the concerns expressed Friday had been discussed

Local citizens and members of the Loudoun County Design Cabinet - architects, planners, landscapers, engineers all gathered at the Quaker Meetinghouse to talk about how to restore Grace Methodist Episcopal Church, on Brooks Lane in Lincoln. (Photo by Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now)
Local citizens and members of the Loudoun County Design Cabinet – architects, planners, landscapers, engineers all gathered at the Quaker Meetinghouse to talk about how to restore Grace Methodist Episcopal Church, on Brooks Lane in Lincoln.
(Photo by Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now)

by Grace Annex over the past 15 to 20 years. “We’re at an impasse,” he said of the desire to restore the church.

Loudoun County planner Al Garcia urged the group to talk up their big ideas. “Be creative, see what’s possible—reality will come later in the regulatory and technical process,” he said.

Hansen emphasized the work session was all “just ideas.”

The meeting ended after three designs were shown—one looking at suggested parking improvements. One design featured an apartment in the basement of the church and an educational center upstairs, with a restored altar area, a few pews along with museum displays space and a small seating area. The third showed the upper level restored as a church for occasional services, with displays on the lower level.

“It was a good start to a community conversation that needed to happen,” Middleburg Town Administrator Martha Mason Semmes, who is a member of the Design Cabinet, said this week.

Noting that residents were united in wanting to preserve the church, she suggested that the Lincoln Community League and the Lincoln Preservation Foundation work with the Grace Annex congregation to develop a preservation plan.

In pursuit of that goal, Semmes said that former Journey Through Hallowed Ground President Cate Magennis Wyatt has already suggested some funding sources, and Hansen has offered to help with construction bids.

mmorton@loudounnow.com