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Safety before culture

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Olde Presbyterian Church gets facelift

By Greg Summers

When the Olde Presbyterian Cultural Arts Center opened in June 2012, it was called a work in progress,

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That’s been especially true since mid-May.

When the Lancaster County Society for Historical Preservation opened the doors, it opened all of them.

However, the doors that face Gay Street have been sealed off by a chain link fence since early May as the front steps and retaining wall are replaced.

The steps leading into the building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, had to go, said Helen Sowell, city of Lancaster administrator.

Finished in January 1865, the Olde Presbyterian Church is the second oldest brick building in the county. The 16-inch thick walls are made of handmade brick.

“The retaining walls on both sides of the steps cracked and needed to be repaired for safety reasons,” Sowell said. “Once that work is complete, a second set of steps will be added, along with some landscaping and pavers.

“Hopefully, the first stage will be complete by mid-July.”
Sowell said the work costs a little over $55,000. The money to pay for it came from a 2011-12 city of Lancaster hospitality grant.

“The issue with the front steps is something we’ve been aware of.” Sowell said. “ There has been lots of talk about modifying the front entrance, but we did not want to do anything that would affect the integrity and overall appearance of the building.”

“It’s been a long-range project and goal of our society board to make the steps safer for public use but also to keep intact the old integrity of our 1862 historic building,” said Lindsay Pettus of the Lancaster County Society for Historical Preservation.

“A thank you to city of Lancaster, Council and staff for their assistance, and to Chad Catledge of Perception Builders/Burris Landscaping for their help with construction of steps,” Pettus said.

Growing role
The goal is to make the center a versatile cultural arts center. While several concerts, book signings and arts shows have been held there, Sowell said there had been some hesitation to use it, though there have been multiple opportunities to do so.

She said she was encouraged by the size of the crowd that dropped by the center June 22-23 during the first ever self -guided Ag+Art Tour. Participants had 23 stops to choose from. Sowell said more than 200 stopped by the center.

“There’s just beginning to be a lot of interest in the church and we feel like it’s only going to grow,” she said. “No, the church hasn’t been used as much as we’d like, but we felt the front steps were an issue we had to get addressed. This is something we had to take care of.”      

Designed in an early Gothic Revival style, the church interior was stuccoed to resemble stone. Some interesting architectural features include hood moldings over the arches, cornice brackets with pendants under the gallery and round wooden columns to support the gallery.
Sowell said plaster  around the windows is under repair. The stage has been enlarged and the wooden floor is being refinished. There are also plans to refinish the Gothic-style front doors.

“It’s really starting to shape up and looks nice,” she said.  
Sowell said the city of Lancaster recently received a Duke Energy grant that will be used to repair damaged headstones in the church cemetery, The oldest known grave is that of Dr. John Brown, whose tombstone states he died Sept. 29, 1836.

The cemetery holds the remains of two veterans of the War of 1812, five veterans of the Florida Seminole War, two veterans of the Mexican War, one being James F. Barr, who was the second man to scale the walls of Mexico City.

Fifty-one Confederate army veterans and two Union army veterans are also buried there, as well as Andrew Mayer, the first mayor of Lancaster and planter and lawyer Irving Clinton.

Clinton broke state law in the 1800s by teaching his brightest slaves to read and write. Among that number was AME Zion church bishop Isom Clinton, who founded 130 churches in the state.

“We want to make sure that it (the cemetery) is better cataloged so the roles of none of the people are forgotten,” Sowell said.

Contact copy editor Greg Summers at (803) 283-1156