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Local Theatre Group Sets Its Sights on (another) Historic Church

April 18th, 2013

The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church at 42 Favor Street in the Cornhill Neighborhood. [PHOTO: J.R. Teeter]
Last September the Bread and Water Theatre group expressed interest in purchasing the Westminster Presbyterian Church at 660 West Main Street after learning that its owner had asked the City for permission to demolish it. That demolition request has been denied (for now). Meanwhile, the same theatre group now has its eye on another historically significant church…

The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church at 42 Favor Street in the Cornhill Neighborhood. [PHOTO: Nothnagle Realtors]
The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in the Cornhill Neighborhood [map it external link] has a very rich past, and I’d highly recommend reading this article external link from the Burned Over District Blog about the church and its congregation. Here are the historical CliffsNotes…

The first African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church at Spring and Favor Streets. [PHOTO: Taken from a 19th century engraving, Rochester Public Library]The current building is actually the second church built on this site by the congregation. The first was a one-story wooden structure built in 1831, about 15 years after the Memorial A.M.E. Church external link was founded in Philadelphia. This church was used by Harriet Tubman as a stop on the underground railroad external link and Frederick Douglass printed his North Star external link anti-slavery publication in the basement. The second church was built in 1879, and it’s believed that timbers from the old church were used in the construction of the new one.

From the church’s web site external link:

Harriet Tubman, known as “The Moses of her people,” is credited with leading hundreds of Negro slaves to freedom, using the first building to shelter fugitive slaves. Susan B. Anthony gave one of her last public addresses in the church, and Frederick Douglass edited his abolitionist papers, “The North Star,” from presses set up in the church basement.

The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church at 42 Favor Street in the Cornhill Neighborhood. [PHOTO: Nothnagle Realtors]
Some members of the AME Zion congregation believe that Frederick Douglass’ printing press is still somewhere in the building. But I’m skeptical, as Douglass’ publication ceased in 1861, eighteen years before the new church was built. In any event, I can’t seem to find this building on any historic/landmark list (local, state, or national). That seems strange to me.

The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church at 42 Favor Street in the Cornhill Neighborhood. [PHOTO: Nothnagle Realtors]
Also noteworthy… in the 1960′s the congregation was forced to relocate to their current home on Clarissa Street because the Inner Loop and I-490 (west) were being planned to run right through the site. As fate would have it, I-490 skirted to the north and the church was never torn down. It sat vacant for many years after that.

The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church at 42 Favor Street in the Cornhill Neighborhood. [PHOTO: Nothnagle Realtors]
Now owned by Greater Bethlehem Temple, the 6,100 square foot church has been on the market (listed at $499,900) for nearly a year. This week Bread & Water Theatre launched a campaign external link to try and raise the needed needed to buy it and turn it into their home and a community space.

“We are in final negotiations to purchase the church,” says J.R. Teeter, the group’s artistic director. “To be successful in our efforts we need to do two things: we need to have the highest bid, and provide a large down payment demonstrating that we are serious about purchasing the building. We believe that both are possible – if people hear our message and donate to this cause.”

The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church at 42 Favor Street in the Cornhill Neighborhood. [PHOTO: Nothnagle Realtors]
In a statement to supporters this week, Teeter said their plan would be to “adapt it for use as a community cultural center equipped with a theatre, art gallery and organic gardens.”

Teeter says if his group is successful, he will open the building up and make it available to everyone, including the original congregation. “We believe that this building is vital to the history of Rochester and our goal is to preserve it using its bricks and mortar to help uplift a community and honor the legacies of Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, and Harriet Tubman whose histories are all part of the legacy of this building.”

How You Can Help

If you would like to help Bread & Water with their campaign, you can donate online external link or by mail using this form external link.

• • •

UPDATE: From Cynthia Howk, Landmark Society of Western NY: “The church at 42 Favor Street is an officially designated City of Rochester landmark external link. This official landmark designation is via the City’s Preservation Ordinance, which is administered by the Rochester Preservation Board, working with staff at the City’s Department of Planning. City Landmark status provides protection from (1) demolition and (2) unsympathetic alterations to the exterior of the building. It does not regulate changes to the interior of the building, nor does it control the use of the building (for example, the church could be sold to a new owner, who might want to put a dance studio in the sanctuary – instead of using this as a house of worship). The use of a building is controlled through another section of the City’s zoning code.”

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This entry was posted on Thursday, April 18th, 2013 at 7:48 am and is filed under Interviews, Rochester History, Rochester Images, Rochester News, Urban Development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

16 Responses to “Local Theatre Group Sets Its Sights on (another) Historic Church”

  1. Luke Myer says:

    While not surprised, I am truly disappointed at Rochester’s lack of memorializing this church as a piece of American history, let alone Rochester history. Good luck to J.R.Teeter in this endeavor, I hope it works out for you guys!

  2. Martin Wright says:

    They should also sign up for a site like fundly.com or giveforward.com (I know there are plenty more). I have seen some epic success. Then feed it to the national theatre community.

  3. @Martin, good thinking! I’ll make sure Mr. Teeter gets that suggestion.

  4. JR Teeter says:

    Those kickstarter-style websites are problematic. We, as a non-profit, need to keep track of our donors for reporting purposes and these sites do not provide us with the contact information we need. Also, they take a percentage of the donation which is equally not good. Another problem is that when you donate to a kickstarter program you are not donating to us. You are giving your money to a middleman organization and that organization is giving it to us. My understanding is that you lose out on the tax benefits of your donation with these sites.

    Those that are interested can donate directly to Bread & Water Theatre at http://www.breadandwatertheatre.org. All donations are tax deductible to the fullest extent of the law.

  5. UPDATE: From Cynthia Howk, Landmark Society of Western NY: “The church at 42 Favor Street is an officially designated City of Rochester landmark external link. This official landmark designation is via the City’s Preservation Ordinance, which is administered by the Rochester Preservation Board, working with staff at the City’s Department of Planning. City Landmark status provides protection from (1) demolition and (2) unsympathetic alterations to the exterior of the building. It does not regulate changes to the interior of the building, nor does it control the use of the building (for example, the church could be sold to a new owner, who might want to put a dance studio in the sanctuary – instead of using this as a house of worship). The use of a building is controlled through another section of the City’s zoning code.”

  6. Matthew Denker says:

    I’ll do a longer post about this some other time, but this church is good and should be saved. It should also be redeveloped around. I doubt the theater company will do that (certainly not right away), but the church building would easily be supported by taking part of the 2 acres of empty land on which it sits and inserting some lucrative Corn Hill residential.

  7. sally parker says:

    JR Teeter – Even if BWT doesn’t use a Kickstarter-like fundraising method, I hope you are getting the message out to a much wider audience. I like the idea of spreading the word to the international theater community – I’d add to that African American history/Underground Railroad networks. With Anthony/Douglass/Tubman star power like this, you really could attract truly international support! Douglass and Anthony both have legacies overseas.

  8. JR Teeter says:

    That’s definitely true Sally. We are trying our best to build a coalition of support.

  9. gary b says:

    I’m glad to see potential traction on this building. It has been sitting, isolated, on this site for years. I recall it from my student days at the RIT downtown campus. The Student Activities Center on Spring Street was close to the church. It appears from the map that the church fronted on an older street that no longer exists for which I have no name. It backed up to Clarissa Street, a historic African-American thoroughfare which the City nearly Urban Renewed out of existence after the 1964 riots and the construction of I-490. Only portions of Clarissa Street remain. Some blocks simply disappeared. Others, such as the short block behind the church, Cascade Drive (formerly Clarissa Street) and the Ford Street Bridge (formerly the Clarissa Street Bridge), were renamed.

    Has the AME Zion Church expressed any interest in regaining the building, or are they happy in their current home? They were abused by state DOT—told their church must be demolished and forced to move to an expensive new building. Then they watched as the building decayed, untouched, and was eventually sold to a different congregation.

    The building is now totally out of context, sitting alone in an expanse of wasted land. I agree that some development might be useful and place it in context. I’d like to see mixed use—some retention of green space to be landscaped for a small park, for example. As a theater, it would need to retain the parking, street parking being very limited. Also some commercial or residential development on the grounds could contribute to the upkeep of the theater and also render it less isolated from its surroundings.

  10. Matthew Denker says:

    There’s a great deal of underutilized on and off-street parking very near to this building. Even as a theater, it should maintain only a very small amount of its own parking (and likely for handicapped patrons). http://goo.gl/maps/nD8uP For better or worse, neither of the lots immediately east of this church are going anywhere.

    I guess I’ll pull together a filling in about my prior plans for this church, now that it seems like more of a public service and less of an investment on my part.

  11. Joe says:

    Its a beautiful church and a great piece of history in the city. The whole area is a great example of how urban renewal destroyed neighborhoods. The city seems to brag that Corn Hill is a well preserved victorian neighborhood, but it really has been largely destroyed. Sure there are many surviving buildings, but many have been leveled. The neighborhood would be unrecognizable to a Rochesterian from 100 years ago.

  12. Jim Fraser says:

    Mike, this site and surroundings could be a great project for the LMS African-American Task Force. http://landmarksociety.org/2012/12/african-american-landmarks-project-receives-nys-funding/

  13. gary b says:

    Agreed, that could be an excellent connection for Landmark’s African-American project, which lost some of its momentum after the departure of Eugene Dubois.

  14. sally parker says:

    JR – Is there anything I (and maybe some others on here?) can do to help you reach out to some of these groups?

  15. JR Teeter says:

    This is, in general terms, what I need based on my experience working in the arts and on preservation issues. As the article mentioned I’ve also worked to try and save Westminster Presbyterian.
    -I’ve already talked with local corporations that commonly donate to causes like this. All have expressed a level of interest in the project and are curious to see how it will move forward, but none of them are going to put up funds for it at this time. Their point of view is this: We don’t want to give you money in the form of grants or donations when you do not have a significant donor base to support you. We could give you one million dollars, but without a donor base you’ll be back to where you started after our money runs out. I 100% agree with them on this point.
    -This means I need to create a wide base of support to make this happen. The best way to do so is to have civic groups from all over the city support this project and aggregate donations. My father was part of the Lions Club and raised money for different causes all the time. The great thing about organizations like these is that donation drives are their expertise. They know how to do them and raise the maximum amount of money possible. We need to create a list of these organizations and contact them without delay.
    -We need to create a donor base of individuals in the Rochester area willing to give to this cause. This means local businesses, small mom and pop shops, and individual donors. And when someone donates they need to encourage everyone they know to match or beat their donation. If you give us $35 that is good. It gets us closer to our goal, but we won’t get there if that’s all that comes in. If you and 100 of your friends give $35 then you have just raised $3500 which is awesome.

    So those are some of the ideas and ways of raising money, but that doesn’t entirely answer your question Sally. You can definitely let me know of groups in the Rochester area that could support something like this and I can make the connections from there. The best thing an individual person can do is hold a fundraising event at their house (or perhaps in a local park when the weather is nicer). Tell everyone you know that its a fundraiser and to bring their checkbooks in case they want to donate. I can show up and talk about our plans to preserve Rochester’s history and promote the arts. People can ask questions and donate to the cause. They can also opt to host a fundraising event. One fundraising event may bring in $1000, but if that fundraiser is the genesis of other events it could raise $10,000. That is the best way to raise money, establish a donor base and create a support network.

    If anyone is interested in helping out send an e-mail to info@breadandwatertheatre.org

  16. Joel Helfrich says:

    What of the Baber AME Zion Church on the Corner of Meigs and Clinton (550 Meigs)?

    http://baberrochester.org/history_4.html


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