Franklin Jones was a senior at Male High School when he heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak at Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in April 1961. His future wife, Carrye, who was still in junior high school, was also among the more than 1,000 people in the audience to hear King that day.
On Saturday, the couple were among those attending an open house and community meeting at the Chestnut Street YMCA to discuss the future of Quinn Chapel, which has been vacant since 2002 when the congregation relocated to Muhammad Ali Boulevard and sold the property at 912 W. Chestnut Street to the YMCA.
In 2010 and 2011, the YMCA invested $400,000 for stabilization of the building that included a new roof and support beams as well as brick repair. In April 2018, Louisville Metro government received a $450,000 grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Park Service for the Quinn Chapel AME Church Stabilization Project, and the Office of Redevelopment Strategies has added $150,000 to the effort.
Savannah Darr, a historic preservation specialist for Develop Louisville’s Planning and Design Services, said Saturday’s meeting was the first of many opportunities for public input on redeveloping the dilapidated historic landmark.
“We want to get public feedback on what the community sees this building becoming. How does it become once again, a valuable asset to their neighborhood? Once the stabilization is complete, which we hope is by 2020 or 21, we’ll get into adaptive reuse,” Darr added.
The YMCA gave tours of Quinn Chapel to small groups during Saturday’s meeting. More than 50 years after King inspired them to take part in the Civil Rights Movement, Franklin and Carrye stood in the church, although it was now dark and cavernous. The place brought back memories of time spent participating in campaigns to desegregate Louisville’s trolley system and fighting for the passage of Open Housing legislation, they said.
“This church is where we used to form up when we marched downtown. I’m hoping there is going to be some commemoration of that here. People don’t understand that civil disobedience meant that you wanted to get arrested. You didn’t throw a rock and run. You wanted to go to jail for a peaceful demonstration to show how unjust the laws were. I learned those lessons at Quinn Chapel,” Franklin Jones said.
The West Chestnut Street building’s history dates back to 1857 when its rear portion was first built for the congregation of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. The rest of the sanctuary with its Gothic Revival architectural style was constructed by the Chestnut Street Baptist Church in 1884. That congregation sold the property to Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1910.
However, the building’s history as a launching pad for social change predates the Civil Rights Movement, according to YMCA Facilities Manager Dustin Kirby, who gave tours of the church on Saturday. Kirby said there are three tunnels underneath the chapel that he was told were used to house escaped slaves as part of the Underground Railroad in the period before Emancipation.
“There is a story and a half in those tunnels alone. This church has played such a historic role in this community that we want to save as much of it as we can,” Kirby said.
Quinn Chapel was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. The building has retained its integrity in design, materials and craftsmanship. The eastern steeple was removed but original stained glass windows and decorative masonry features are still intact. The building still needs a new roof for the rear portion of the building, stabilizing walls and foundation repairs.
Darr said the Quinn Chapel project is being coordinated with Vision Russell, the city’s larger plan to revitalize the entire Russell neighborhood, and will probably receive additional money from the $30 million federal Choice Neighborhoods Initiative grant that is funding other redevelopment in the neighborhood.
Jackie Floyd of the Russell Neighborhood Association said she attended Saturday’s meeting just to hear other people’s ideas for the Quinn Chapel. Floyd said the building is worth preserving if for no other reason to remind future Russell residents of the community’s storied history.
“Children especially need to know about this place,” Floyd said. “If they don’t know where you’ve been, then they’ll never know where you need to go.”