Portland City Manager donates to Abyssinian restoration

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PORTLAND — City Manager Jon Jennings has donated $36,000 of his office contingency funds to help restore the Abyssinian Meeting House.

“For too long this important piece of our history has been left to languish. It is long past time that the city come together to restore this part of our culture so that future generations can enjoy it,” Jennings said in a March 2 press release.

The Abyssinian Meeting House, 75 Newbury St., is the third-oldest African-American meeting house in the nation, and has nearly fallen victim to fire and urban redevelopment in its history.

Within the community, its presence speaks for itself.

“In most instances, people are going to museums to examine artifacts, but the Abyssinian Meeting House is the artifact. It’s a hands-on history lesson that we are fortunate to have here,” Pamela Cummings said in the press release.

Cummings directs the nonprofit Committee to Restore the Abyssinian Meeting House. Restoration is entering a third phase, and to complete the restoration the group needs to raise at least $1.5 million.

As well as a house of worship, the meeting house was also a stop on the Underground Railroad for African Americans escaping slavery before the Civil War.

The meeting house was spared during the 1866 fire that burned through the city peninsula as congregation member William Wilberforce Ruby doused blankets in a spring running under the building and then covered the roof.

Almost 50 years ago, the building was threatened by urban redevelopment. It is now on the U.S. Register of Historic Places and is designated a historic site by the city.

In 2009, the city provided $122,000 from a Community Development Block Grant to help rebuild the roof, trusses and exterior walls.

City spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said the next phase includes new electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems, and a new floor on the building’s lower level.

Along with the city funding, Grondin said city staff and the restoration committee will join together in fundraising efforts by reaching out for private sector donations and helping set up meetings with local business leaders.

As the restoration seeks to recreate the 19th-century appearance of the meeting house, Cummings said it conveys something more eternal.

“Although this building contains the stories of African Americans, at its core it tells the story of the human spirit and its ability to thrive and survive,” she said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland City Manager Jon Jennings contributed $36,000 of his office contingency funds to a third phase of restoration efforts at the Abyssinian Meeting House, 75 Newbury St.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.