Restoration of historic Black Church nearing completion

Nacogdoches – The 1914 church that anchors the Zion Hill Historic District is getting modern amenities as it moves toward a goal of reopening to the public.

“Plumbing, electrical, ADA compliance — those things were never meant to be in this building, and we need to find a way to integrate them organically to preserve the story,” said Jessica Sowell, assistant director of community services.

Originally slated for completion by mid-2022, the $1.6million Zion Hill Church renovation project has been hit by two years of supply chain outages and other issues associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re looking at the fall of this year, but we don’t have an exact date,” Sowell said. “Once we do that, I’ll tell everyone.”

Many Nacogdoches natives who grew up admiring the Gothic Revival-style building were thrilled to learn that a decades-long effort to revitalize it and reopen it to the public will soon come to fruition.

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“I went to this church many times as a child, unfortunately more often when it was in bad shape,” said District Judge Jeff Davis, who grew up in Nacogdoches. “It’s been a 30-year project, to do that.”

Built in 1914 by architect Diedrich Rulfs, the building probably wouldn’t be standing today, Sowell said, if the Nacogdoches County Historical Society hadn’t stepped in in the 1990s, raising funds and securing grants. for major repairs after the church had sat vacant and deteriorated for a decade.

The historical society deeded the building to the city in 2010. Since then it has been a work in progress as more grants and donations have been raised over the years to restore and transform it in museum and place of events.

“Our plan is to focus on the African American history of this area, the church and the neighborhood around it,” Sowell said.

The Zion Hill Historic District grew and developed during the 1880s and 1890s as a black neighborhood on what was then the northeastern edge of Nacogdoches. Residents generally worked in downtown businesses or for wealthy white families living on nearby Mound Street.

Its shotgun and New Orleans-style homes are largely identical to those of the early 1900s.

“These are not things you normally see preserved,” Sowell said. “The Victorian houses, all the places where Sam Houston set foot, are preserved, but not the everyday houses.”

Founded in 1878 by Reverend Lawson Reed, the Zion Hill congregation predates the building on Rue Bois d’Arc, its fourth location. Reed held the first services under a brush arbor, moving to a frame building on Park Street, then to a building on Logansport Street.

As upper-class white neighborhoods grew in the 1910s, Zion Hill was forced to relocate.

The church purchased land on Rue Bois d’Arc from Nacogdoches businessman John Schmidt, a German immigrant who was co-owner of Mayer & Schmidt. Schmidt requested no down payment for the land and financed the construction of the new building under Rulfs, his longtime friend and fellow German immigrant.

The church was completed in 1914 at a cost of $7,223 – about $215,000 today.

For nearly 75 years, it was a center of social and religious activity for residents of the Zion Hill neighborhood.

Justice of the Peace Dorothy Tigner-Thompson grew up just around the corner from Zion Hill and was baptized there when she was 5 years old. She remembers playing in the area behind the parsonage and going to Vacation Bible School in the summer at the church, which was sometimes a refuge for local residents fleeing storms.

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“They would house people in the church who needed a place to come and be safe,” she said.

She is one of those who are delighted to see the church restored. Though an adult when she last saw the interior, it didn’t seem smaller, as those in childhood memories often do. “I walked in right after they took the benches away, and it feels bigger to me,” she said.

Plans for the building as an event venue include meetings, reunions, concerts or weddings, Sowell said.

“We want it to be a building that the community can use, just like it was when it was a church,” she said.

On the museum side, Sowell said the Department of Historic Sites continues to search for photos and documents related to its past use for use in a permanent exhibit.

“Pictures, stories, news articles – if you’ve been to church there, please let us know,” Sowell said. “We have some pictures of this church; and when I’ve seen a few, I mean maybe five.

The City’s Historic Sites Department can be reached at 936-560-4441 or by email at [email protected].

Josh Edwards contributed to this report.

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