Abyssinian church in Portland listed among America's most-endangered historic places

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PORTLAND — The Abyssinian Meeting House, a 185-year-old landmark at 75 Newbury St., is being added to a list of the nation’s 11 most endangered historic places.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation included the meeting house on its 2013 list, which also includes Gay Head Lighthouse in Aquinnah, Mass., and San Jose Church in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The annual list includes places that are architecturally, culturally or historically significant and are at risk of destruction, according to the trust. More than 240 sites have been named to the list over the past 26 years, and in that time, only a “handful” have been lost, spokeswoman Jessica Pumphrey said.

Built in 1828 by free African-Americans, the Abyssinian Meeting House is the third-oldest black congregational church in the nation. Over its history, the building has also served as a school, a community center and the site of a social service agency. During the Civil War era, the Federal-style structure was a stop on the Underground Railroad, helping to bring escaped slaves to freedom.

Although listed on the National Historic Register, the meeting house fell into disrepair and was seized by the city in the early 1990s for delinquent taxes. In 1998, a nonprofit group bought the property from the city for $250 – the same price paid for the land in 1827 – with the goal of restoring the building.

But the work, whose costs have been estimated at $3 million, has been stalled by lack of funding. Timbers remain exposed, and as recently as 2012, a stream flowed freely through the muddy basement of the meeting house.

In September, preservation advocacy group Greater Portland Landmarks named the meeting house to its own list of seven local “Places in Peril.” On Wednesday, the National Trust echoed that concern.

“The Abyssinian Meeting House tells an important story of resilience and progress for African-Americans in Portland,” National Trust President Stephanie Meeks said.

“From the days when Frederick Douglas and William Lloyd Garrison preached about freedom and human rights, the meeting house has been a spiritual center of life for generations of African-Americans … but it needs an influx of funding to keep that story alive for generations to come.”

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.

Sidebar Elements

The Abyssinian Meeting House, at 75 Newbury St. in Portland, was named Wednesday to a list of the nation’s 11 most endangered historic places.

America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places

• Abyssinian Meeting House, Portland, Maine

• Astrodome, Houston

• Chinatown House, Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.

• Gay Head Lighthouse, Aquinnah, Mass.

• Historic Rural Schoolhouses, Montana

• James River, James City County, Va.

• Kake Cannery, Kake, Alaska

• Mountain View Black Officers’ Club, Fort Huachuca, Ariz.

• San Jose Church, Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

• Village of Mariemont, Cincinnati

• Worldport Terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York

Source: National Trust for Historic Preservation