Roxbury, MA Historic Boston Inc. (HBI) has completed acquisition of St. James African Orthodox Church, the former Norwegian Free Evangelical Church, built in 1910, and is continuing to work with the Highland Park neighborhood to determine specific new uses for the 50 Cedar St. property.
HBI closed on the transaction, paying Brookline-based City Realty Group $1.4 million for the building and land.
“We are grateful to The Life Initiative, a community investment fund created by Massachusetts-based life insurance companies, for providing HBI financial support for the purchase,” said Kathy Kottaridis, Executive director of HBI.
The church, which had been under threat of demolition, will be preserved under a plan devised by the office of mayor Martin Walsh and HBI.
HBI expects to undertake a full rehabilitation of the building and to restore the grandeur of the two-story sanctuary space.
HBI’s first step will be to stabilize the building in order to arrest the rapid deterioration that the building has suffered from over the last three years. The work starting immediately will make the building weather tight for the winter, and neighbors will soon see a contractor installing a rubber membrane over the roof to keep water out.
Consistent with its rehabilitation and development goals, HBI plans to work with the Highland Park Neighborhood Coalition to create a mixed-use plan for the site that creates housing in form of both home ownership units and affordable rental housing, as well as work spaces with community access in the sanctuary area.
The historic building was built for a Norwegian immigrant community in the early 20th century and was sold in 1955 to St. James African Orthodox Church, a congregation of Caribbean immigrants and faith strongly associated with the followers of Black activist Marcus Garvey. Through community mobilization and an injunction filed by Mayor Walsh, the property was permanently protected this year as a Boston Landmark, preventing its impending demolition.
It is located in the Highland Park neighborhood of the city. The property includes an existing church building measuring 8,000 s/f and a parking lot of 9,000 s/f.
“This agreement with Historic Boston represents the positive resolution we have been looking for and I am delighted at their commitment to preserving this historic church in Roxbury and finding a fresh use for the property,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in a recent statement.
"It has been made clear by local residents that this church has been an integral part of their community for many years and still has an important role to play in the neighborhood's future. We will continue to work closely with Historic Boston as they engage in an open dialogue with the community about the long-term future of this site."
HBI is exploring partnership opportunities with several private developers for the construction of some new housing on the parking lot portion of the site, which would partially defray costs of HBI’s purchase and work to restore, redevelop, and create new uses for the church.
"We look forward to working with the community to find a feasible and positive re-use that complements the neighborhoods’ goals and preserves a century of neighborhood history," said Kottaridis.
Support from the Highland Park neighborhood is essential for this project to go forward, and plans will be presented and discussed at further public meetings before any decisions are made on the future of the property.
The church is in distressed condition, having been neglected for years. HBI is planning a $5 million adaptive reuse effort, tentatively as a co-working space for area entrepreneurs and artists in the church’s sanctuary, with affordable housing units on the church’s ground level.
HBI anticipates a significant financing gap in the project, which it will aim to raise money to fill. The need on this project is estimated to be $2.5 million for the church alone, and sources for a large amount of that has been identified.
The Kuehn Foundation and the Harold Whitworth Pierce Charitable Trust are supporting due diligence and predevelopment costs for the project.
The impressive stained-glass windows in the church are from the Norwegian period, as is the essential design and decoration of the church. The property will provide an opportunity for historic interpretation of a period that is little known to much of Boston’s population today.
The St. James African Orthodox Church is listed on the National Register
of Historic Places as a contributing building with in the Highland Park National Register District. It is a Boston Landmark for its associations with two phases of immigration to Boston and for its associations with 20th century civil rights and social justice.
According to a Boston Landmarks Commission study, the church was built as the Norwegian Evangelical Congregational Church in 1910. It functioned as the African Orthodox Church from 1955 to 2015 and has been unused since then.
It was designed by Boston architect Edward Thomas Patrick Graham and is a blend of Shingle and Late Gothic Revival architectural styles. The building is 2 ½ stories tall with a tower.