Bearing Witness–a renown design team begins work on Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church
Mario Gooden has designed sunlit buildings with transparent and translucent walls from Los Angeles to Johannesburg. He is principal architect and founder of the New York City firm Huff + Gooden and a professor at Columbia University. His fellow professor and architect, Mabel Wilson, is on a team designing a memorial for the University of Virginia—a ring of granite will hold the known and unknown names of 5,000 enslaved people who worked here. Wilson and Gooden also are 2019 American Academy of Arts and Letters architecture award winners, as co-directors of the Global Africa Lab at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture. This winter, they are turning to Great Barrington to restore the 1886 Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church.
With restoration underway, a team of African-American architects and designers are envisioning the historic church as a community center in the 21st century, as it has served an African-American community in the Berkshires since before the Revolutionary War.
Walter Hood, creative director and founder of Hood Design in Oakland, California, will join Gooden and Wilson. A professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in landscape architecture and urban design, he has won national recognition, including the 2019 Dorothy and Lilian Gish Prize and a 2019 MacArthur fellowship for work like the Broad Museum Plaza in Los Angeles, inviting a walk among 100-year-old olive trees.
He also has designed the landscape of the International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, with a memorial garden and a tidal pool. When the tide ebbs, an engraved pattern of men and women will appear as though they are in the hold of a slave ship. Almost 40 percent of the enslaved Africans who came to this country stepped onto the shore there.
Here, along the Housatonic River, Hood, Gooden and Wilson agree that the Clinton Church, and the history it represents, matter on a national scale. Since 2016, the Clinton Church Restoration Inc. has raised almost $1 million to preserve it.
“We are thrilled to be a part of this project,” Gooden says, standing on the church’s wooden steps on a sunny morning as Larochelle Construction, Inc., begins work on the roof. “This building is not only a part of African-American history. It is a part of American history.”
The church has become part of a larger movement across the country to understand and preserve Black history, says Eugenie Sills, interim director of the restoration. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the restoration has won support from the National Park Service, among sites like the African Meeting House in Boston and the Langston Hughes House in Harlem.
In the Berkshires, the church is one of 48 sites on the African American Heritage Trail honoring local and national figures; W.E.B. DuBois was born in Great Barrington and traveled the world as a writer and political activist with international influence. He grew up here as the African-American community built the Clinton Church. He came to performances and debates there, and as a journalist he later wrote about the community. In Souls of Black Folk, he describes the Black church as the social center of Black American life—a source of intellectual strength, resistance and transformation.
Wray Gunn, board chair of the restoration, remembers the Clinton Church from his childhood as an active hub of the community. His family lived in Stockbridge then, as they had for generations. The Gunn family homestead was located on East Main Street, past the former Berkshire Playhouse. In Great Barrington, Gunn recalls the neighborhood around the church. Black families lived and worked here on Rosseter and High streets. Newly married and with his young family, the Reverend Raleigh Dove led the congregation.
“He preached and sang and played the piano,” Gunn says. “He had a powerful voice, and everyone loved him.”
Gunn remembers Gospel singing and church dinners serving 80 people or more. The neighborhood was filled with an energy he hopes to see again—people talking in the chapel and under the maple trees.
“Let’s fill the hall up,” he says, “so everyone can enjoy one another.”
That energy had a practical and political drive. In 1969, the NAACP held meetings in the church basement. Gunn’s father was the president then, and the group led talks about police brutality, hunger, and homelessness that led to the founding of Construct Inc. The Rev. Esther Dozier carried on as a leader in the community into this century.
“This church put ideals into action,” Gooden observes. “It was important not only in feeding the soul, but in feeding the mind and consciousness, and the body.”
This winter, he, Wilson and Hood have begun shaping the stories they see here and giving them physical form. A building may hold a perspective or tell a story in the shapes of its spaces and the play of light, Gooden writes in his book Dark Space. The architect guides people as they step into and through a space. The building may connect to other places as it opens into a wider world.
When he walks into the old wooden building, Gooden can see the outline of the pews on the walls, years after the pews have gone. “You can go back decades,” he says, “in the layers of physical fabric that will be uncovered.”
Gooden thinks of the Black church in the early 1800s, when it was illegal for Black congregations to meet and worship. So they met in the woods and made bush arbors or brush arbors, shelters of branches.
“They made a space for themselves for worship, for planning, for political activism,” he says. “It’s no coincidence that the church was key to the Civil Rights Movement. This building bears witness to that history of action.”