By Curtis Maxwell Perrin
In 2018 Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood learned of a developer’s intention to raze the historic African Orthodox Church at 56 Cedar Street and replace it with condos. It seemed an uphill battle when the Highland Park Neighborhood Coalition (HPNC), of which I am the co-chair of the Preservation Committee, decided to try to save this church building beloved to the neighborhood: The building was in a poor state of repair, which did not help claims to preserve it, and the fight involved one of the biggest real estate developers in the city. They had full-time employees, lawyers, and consultants working to take this building down, while we were just volunteers from the neighborhood trying to wage this battle while juggling jobs, kids, and everything else.
It quickly became apparent that we were not going to win our battle simply by pleading with the developers to do the right thing. In order to prevent demolition, we had to move quickly to prove the building's importance and significance to the local community. It is while researching the building's significance, that a remarkable story began to reveal itself – a story that had been somewhat obscured by time but is now clear to everyone once again. The research revealed that there is a layer of intangible heritage related to community practice and interaction, that is not readily discernible through the physical structure. The challenge was figuring out how to present that significance by using existing designation criteria, criteria that was rooted in the architecture and physical building.
The History of the African Orthodox Church
The importance of the African Orthodox Church was not so much for its architecture as for the way it preserves a built record of two communities’ efforts to create something for themselves in America. The building tells a story by way of the groups that inhabited it. The first of these groups were laboring-class immigrant Norwegians, who built this building for themselves in 1910 not just as a spiritual home but as a place to help their newly-arrived countrymen assimilate to a new and unfamiliar world. The Norwegian church ran a settlement home and taught newcomers trades to enable them to become part of the new land they had adopted as home. As a fully dedicated, surviving center for assimilation of this type, it is perhaps unique in the city.
Similarly, when the African Orthodox Church (AOC) purchased the building in 1955, it was a matter of building community for Caribbean immigrants. This initiative was directly inspired by Marcus Garvey’s movement that stressed the idea of black identity and which was closely tied to the founding of the AOC. To create this racial pride and autonomy, founding a church was a central element, and many of the original AOC members mortgaged their own homes to fund the purchase of the 50 Cedar Street building, and this was not the last of their efforts to make Roxbury a better place. Through the AOC’s connection to the Civil Rights movement via Marcus Garvey, and through their efforts at African-American self-determination via projects to build housing in the neighborhood and organize the community, they actively strived to extend what this building itself housed to the community at large.
We tend to think that buildings are just the unchanging, physical material of which they are constructed, but in fact a ‘building’ is also what is made within it in the lives and memories of the inhabitants. In fact, in Boston our landmarking law is more focused on the people and events associated with a building rather than its architectural quality, but the laws restrict what is deemed important only to associations at a state or national level of importance. The everyday lives and experiences of people, which are the bulk of the lived experience of this country are the intangible story that is often left untold. Fortunately for us in Highland Park, the associations at 50 Cedar did rise to a national level of importance via the connection to Marcus Garvey and the Civil Rights movement, but this also allowed the intangible parts of the story – the lives of the Caribbean and Norwegian congregations that were here – to also become part of what is now landmarked and preserved as a record of history for future generations. Research revealed that there is a layer of heritage preserved at this site (and others like it) that requires us to look at associations that are social and historical and not readily discernible on the surface. Incredibly important stories are preserved in intangible ways, and if we let the structures disappear that preserve these invisible histories, we let go of our own history. Once the research started to uncover the these parts of the building’s importance in immigrant and Civil Rights history, the pieces of our argument to preserve it started to fall into place.
As community stewards of this building, we in the neighborhood feel ourselves to be the inheritors of this mission to determine pathways for our community that provide respite from oppression, violence, and greed. This building serves as a symbolic reminder of the efforts of those who have come before us to preserve practices of community-building, and the effort to preserve the building extends that same community-building purpose. This building is a memory of people who helped others, and it serves as an inspiration for that type of work to continue.
The lesson we learned in this case is that not all buildings that should be landmarked actually look like landmarks; not all landmarks are fancy or monumental. The African Orthodox Church is a modest structure (although designed by noted architect Edward T. P. Graham) and currently in poor repair. To many observers only looking at the outside, it may seem like there is not much here – and that is what developers are assuming across Roxbury as they seek to demolish older buildings and replace them with speculative investments. But that attitude is what our process serves to call into question: We cannot evaluate based on appearances, and in the rush to capitalize on the current building boom, many significant parts of Boston’s history are at risk of being swept away and forgotten.
Once these incredible stories were made public via our process of research and civic advocacy, a petition with 2700 signatures, and the support of many news organizations, as well as the Boston Preservation Alliance, the Boston Landmarks Commission unanimously voted to make this Boston’s newest landmark. The threatening developers pulled out and a new historically-minded group, Historic Boston, Inc., purchased the building and has plans to do a historically minded adaptive re-use of the structure so that its legacy is preserved. It is a victory for the preservation of intangible heritage, not just in Roxbury, but in setting an example across the city of the importance of many buildings that may not ‘look’ like landmarks but that preserve similar stories just waiting to be uncovered by efforts just like ours.
Curtis Perrin works in preservation architecture at Spencer, Sullivan & Vogt in Boston and also teaches at Wentworth Institute of Technology. He is the co-chair of the Highland Park Neighborhood Coalition preservation committee, which is involved in an effort to have the City of Boston designate the neighborhood as an architectural conservation district. For more information see: highlandparkacd.org