St. Luke history
1862: St. Luke African Methodist Episcopal Church founded by former slaves who had helped others escape via the Underground Railroad.
1910: current church built at Ninth and New York streets.
1910s: Langston Hughes attends St. Luke AME church.
1950s-1960s: church becomes center for civil rights movement.
July 1970: church is location for funeral of Rick “Tiger” Dowdell, a black teen shot by Lawrence police.
2005: building placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
That’s how much money it took to build the church at Ninth and New York streets in 1910. It was a red brick Gothic-style building, a new home for one of the oldest black congregations in the state. Pressed tin tiles graced the vaulted ceilings of St. Luke African Methodist Episcopal Church, and stained glass colored the light that poured into the sanctuary.
Now, a century later, that building has nearly returned to the glory it had in 1910, thanks to a recently completed restoration. The project included improvements to the structure of the building, elimination of a drop ceiling, restoration of ceiling tiles, refinishing the floors and more interior work. And keeping the church as authentic as possible was important, said the Rev. Verdell Taylor.
“You really want to maintain and restore, restore, as opposed to some kind of rehabilitation,” he said. “We wanted it to look as it looked when people first built the church. And when the first members worshipped here, so in 1910, it would look similar to how it looked now, as far as the wall and ceiling goes.”
The congregation actually predates the building by almost 50 years. It was established in 1862 by a group of blacks, many of whom were former slaves. They started work on a building, but on Aug. 21, 1863, a man named William Quantrill stole the money they’d saved for the church and threw bodies into the foundation they’d begun to dig.
The church continued to play a vital part in history, its members helping slaves escape via the Underground Railroad. Years later, a young Langston Hughes would attend church, later writing about it as the first church he remembered, and how he was always moved by the “rhythms of the Negro church.”
The building was a center of activity during the civil rights movement, and was the location of the funeral for a young black man shot during racial turmoil in 1970 by a Lawrence police officer.
“It represented the community so much,” Taylor said. “Important meetings were held here. Any social action tended to also meet in and around St. Luke AME Church.”
The church’s rich history was a perfect reason to restore the building before its centennial, said Bill Tuttle, a driving force behind the project. The building was losing stability structurally, and the walls were starting to bow out. Soon, the scope of the project moved beyond simple support.
“Once we got in there, we realized we could provide for both the survival of the church and restore the sanctuary,” Tuttle said.
One feasibility study, hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money and five years later, the update to the church, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, was under way.
Architects at Hernly Associates found a way to slide supports into walls without taking the brick off the outside of the building. Builders removed a flat ceiling, which had been added in 1972, revealing a tiled vaulted ceiling covered in pressed tin.
“We didn’t see it until we removed the lowered ceiling,” Taylor said. “It was like, ‘Oh my God, what a beautiful structure this is!’”
Surprises didn’t come only from above. When red carpeting was removed, the original pine flooring was revealed. A member of the east Lawrence community restored the floor, pulling replacement planks from a house in Leavenworth that was the same age as the church.
Stan Hernly said preservation work is almost harder than a new project, and this was no exception. Water damage, mold and lead paint were discovered inside the structure, common problems in such old buildings. Finding a way to restore the building to its former grandeur was difficult, but the payoff was worth it.
“When the old buildings are gone, you still have the stories of the people, but you don’t have the relics of what they created. It’s like they die again,” he said. “It’s easy to tear something down and build something new, but it’s a lot more rewarding to take something old and give it a new life again.”
The next step
The $300,000 restoration was a step in the right direction, but it’s only phase one.
Hernly guesses that two-thirds of the bricks on the outside of the building need to be relaid. Restoring the stained-glass windows are also high on the list, but those two updates together could cost about $500,000, Hernly said.
For now, though, Taylor said his congregation was happy to no longer relocate every Sunday next door to New York School, a necessary move during the eight months of construction.
“The people, the congregation itself, they’re ecstatic just to be back in their building,” he said.
The church is celebrating completion of the project in a special ceremony on Nov. 21.
And those involved in the restoration hope the building will stand for another 100 years, keeping protective walls around its congregants.
“They’ve seen a lot of crises, a lot of trials and tribulations, but the people had a hope and they didn’t give up,” Taylor said. “So the walls would tell you they kept saying to keep going on, don’t give up, keep going on. You’ve got two more steps to take, and they would take one more step. Keep the work going, keep going forward.”