Restoring Memories at the Brooklyn Arts Center

One of Wilmington's most ambitious art projects is still a shell on the city's north side - the historic Saint Andrew's church, future home of the Brooklyn Arts Center. Renovation work on the building starts this summer, but WHQR'S Megan Williams recently got a tour of the building, and its history, and brought back this report.

Wilmington, NC – Saint Andrew's church is a familiar relic to anyone who's visited Wilmington's north side - a great hulking red-brick ruin with ferns sprouting from the mortar, its stained glass replaced with plywood and tar paper. Lewis Greene has watched the building's slow decay from his front porch for the past thirty years.

"To me it was a sign of [the times]. When we moved, the area was well populated with people, and as the needs and the opportunities started moving out, people started moving out, and left the church with a small membership, and they just couldn't handle it."

But now Greene himself is part of the effort to bring Saint Andrew's back to life... he represents local interests on the board of its next incarnation - the Brooklyn Arts Center. Of course, at the moment, the center is more to be imagined than witnessed.

Erin Diener is Programs Director for the arts center. She's responsible for coordinating the project's funding and for shepherding the occasional visitor through its piles of rubble, into the shell of the old sanctuary.

"The alter area is what the stage area will be, and we're looking now at different designs of having either a partially collapsible stage that will collapse into the floor, or expanding the alter out and just having that high dome area remain."

This is the restoration's balancing job - fashioning a state-of-the-art multi-purpose center while preserving the 128-year-old building's history. Turning the sanctuary into a theatre, for instance, is going to require some very good curtains, to cover the stained glass windows.

But that doesn't worry Diener: "The more exciting part is having those windows here and bringing St Andrews site to former glory. So we're very willing to spend the money and time to deal with those architectural issues.. challenges we is more the way we like to think of it."

Saint Andrew's is full of these challenges. Sunday School classrooms originally designed to allow nearby teachers to keep a strict ear on their students must now be soundproofed before being turned into artist's studios or office space. And then there are just the quirky details to save... in the large room which may someday house the Dance Cooperative, is an old stage, its curtain mechanism still intact.

"A little rusty, a little old," Diener says after inspecting the winch, "but we're hoping we can restore it and keep it here. One of the cute stories I've heard, Sunday school, it was a very big honor to be the one opening and closing the curtain for performances."

For Diener, preserving the church also keeps alive those stories the people who used it. She's met several former church members already. Charlotte Murchison came to Saint Andrews with her grandfather more than sixty years ago.

"As a child, as a twelve-year-old child, I remember being impressed with the polished luster of the pews and the alter and, all the woodwork in the church. It was all mahogany I think and they must have kept it polished because it was beautiful."

Murchison is in her eighties now, and there aren't too many like her with memories of what Saint Andrews once was. But if the Brooklyn arts center succeeds in its balancing act, those memories won't be too hard to imagine.

"It was a beautiful old church," Murchison remembers, "had a wonderful aura about it."

As for Greene, the neighbor who has watched Saint Andrews fall, and begin to rise again... he hopes to someday hold a family reunion in the space.

Megan Williams, WHQR News