The First Baptist Church and the Kilby Hotel are cornerstones of the East Washington Street National Historic District, and their loss may not only threaten the historic designation of the neighborhood and related tax credits, but reveals a dysfunction in a community frequently cited for its can-do spirit.
Like the Samuel E. Burford Auditorium on the Penn-Griffin School of Performing Arts a few blocks east, the sanctuary of First Baptist and the Kilby Hotel across the street (image, right) are structures that contribute to the recognition of Washington Street by the National Park Service as a National Register District. Within the district, all three properties are individually listed to the National Register, an honor bestowed even before the street was listed as a whole in 2010. Additionally, the Kilby was designated by City Council as a local Guilford County Landmark in 1982.
According to the National Register nomination for the district, the neighborhood contains “the most cohesive, intact collection of early- to mid-twentieth century commercial, institutional, ecclesiastical, and residential buildings associated with High Point’s African American community.” Across the state, the street is recognized as one of the best-preserved segregation-era neighborhoods among larger cities.
Cited as is one of the oldest and most prominent buildings in the historic district, the First Baptist sanctuary (image, right) is one of only four in the district, and occupies a prominent corner location in the heart of the neighborhood. Its two crenelated towers, stained glass windows, and classroom/office annex have associations with civic leaders including Dr. Hoover, Dr. Gaylord, Dr. Tillman and Samuel E. Burford, the first African American member to serve on the High Point City Council. Last month, the congregation voted to demolish the structure, recognizing that costs to restore the building were far out of their reach.
Next door, the Kilby Hotel exemplifies the entrepreneurial spirit of Nanny Kilby, a woman who capitalized on real estate investments during a time when women and African American citizens were disenfranchised. The three story brick Richardsonian Romanesque building was erected around 1914, and it remains one of the largest structures in the district.
So how could a community stand by and let such esteemed landmarks be destroyed?
In spite of actions made by past leaders of the First Baptist congregation, including misled renovations which dramatically compromised the structural integrity of the original building that was otherwise sound; and because of ruinous stewardship of the hotel – High Point is on the verge of losing two landmark structures that many communities would rally behind. However, some obstacles stand in the way of developing plans that would result in the preservation of both structures, including funding, ownership, and future use of the site. These obstacles are not unique to this community, but the lack of innovative solutions as alternatives to destruction of the landmarks is notable for High Point, which prides itself in its ability to accomplish challenging tasks such as retaining the furniture market or expanding the local university.
Raising funds, never an easy task, is made difficult by the small congregation that owns the First Baptist sanctuary. The 30-60 member church has a limited capacity to raise upwards of $650,000 needed to stabilize the building, and donors outside the congregation might find contributing to a church outside their faith circle an obstacle. In the case of the Kilby descendants, their efforts to solicit major gifts of cash to fund restoration from private and public sources have fallen flat until their tax exempt status clears IRS regulators. In addition, misperceptions of the property’s market value restricts opportunities to honor the legacy of Nanny Kilby outside family ownership.
With limited fundraising capacities for both landmarks, owners have been challenged to repair or maintain their properties. Although other nonprofit entities, including non-religious organizations, might be able to fund these restoration efforts, future plans for the historic structures might not include traditional uses. Would the First Baptist congregation, for example, be open to the idea of the historic church remaining a vital part of the community in a new role…such as residential housing or a community center?
A similar situation befell The Old Church and the Carnegie Library in Leadville, Colorado (image, right). The Presbyterian Church there, with its impressive Gothic-styled bell tower, served as a landmark on the town’s main thoroughfare since 1889. When the congregation moved to a new site in 1968, the future of the old church grew uncertain. The Carnegie Library, just one block away, was also vacant and threatened with destruction.
In 1972, the community organized the Lake County Civic Center Association, a nonprofit organization charged with the mission to “Promote past present & future of Leadville & Lake County.”
The organization took custody of both high profile structures along the main street of Leadville. The library was converted to a new use a heritage museum for Leadville, boosting cultural tourism and the church was adaptively reused for performing arts (image, left). Today, though fundraising is ongoing; both buildings remain part of Leadville’s city-scape and are used to enhance the economy through regional tourism and cultural enrichment.
Why can’t this model, effective in a town of only 2,600 people high in the Rocky Mountains, be used in High Point to preserve the First Baptist Church and the Kilby Hotel in a similar manner?
The answer lies the hearts and minds of the current stewards of the two landmark buildings. They alone can shape the future of these critical sites in the city-scape of East Washington Street. Steps have been made with the Kilby Hotel to incorporate a nonprofit organization called Kilby of Hope, Inc. However, the organization is nascent and presents an unorthodox mission that seeks to restore the building while keeping it in the family that is certain to dissuade potential donors.
If the church and the owners of the Kilby could compromise with the community by donating (and thereby avoiding demolition costs) the two structures to an independent and accountable nonprofit organization with a mission of developing the culture and heritage of High Point, such a gesture could serve as a catalyst for major donations needed to save both buildings. A broad mission that appeals to a diverse audience, and that benefits no one family or congregation could serve the larger community well by preserving both buildings in the altruistic spirit in which historic preservation works best. Historic places belong to the community through their associations with history and pride of place, but they also often co-exist with private property rights. In some cases, compromise can be made through charitable ownership and investment that enriches no person specifically but benefits everyone through programming.
The alternative is to lose both structures to demolition. Once these key landmarks are gone, they cannot be reconstructed in ways that qualify them to remain on the National Register. Moreso, the loss of these two pivotal structures will likely threaten the designation of the entire Washington Street National Historic District, just three years after designation. With the loss of designation, so goes the honor and prestige of the listing, along with lucrative tax credits available to incentivize reinvestment in the neighborhood. A key tool for revitalizing the area will vanish.
This process is in the eleventh hour. The city of High Point is proceeding with demolition enforcement at this time, and there seems to be little interest in developing alternative plans. Ironically, much needed investment for East Washington Street initiated with the National Register designation may be ended before the first benefit of designation was ever realized.