CA: Public invited to suggest Clayborn Temple’s next life
Restoration is underway at the historic Clayborn Temple in Downtown Memphis, but the former church’s new purpose is still in the works.
The church at 280 Hernando was built in 1892 and belonged to Second Presbyterian Church until they sold it to the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1949. It was abandoned and boarded up for good in 1999.
Neighborhood Preservation Inc. Clayborn Temple LLC purchased the church last October from the AME church for $65,000, according to the Shelby County assessor of property.
Clayborn Temple was the base for Memphis sanitation workers during the 1968 strike, which brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis. Hundreds lined up outside Clayborn Temple in March 1968 to march with the civil rights leader, holding the “I Am A Man” signs seen in an iconic photograph.
Now, developers are preparing the building for its next life, whatever that may be.
“We don’t want to create a museum, we don’t want to create just a church,” Thompson said. “So Memphis, come in and tell us what it ought to be.”
The group will begin having open meetings for the public to come inside the space and learn about the history of the church and suggest ideas for its eventual new purpose, beginning with a blessing ceremony at 4 p.m. Oct. 25. At 6:30 p.m., artists are invited to visit and begin brainstorming as well.
Smith is working on the project on behalf of Downtown Church, where he is a member. The church currently hosts its Sunday service inside Central Station on South Main, but will have to move when the $53 million redevelopment of the building begins.
If the Clayborn Temple restoration project is successful, the church will move its congregation to the building as “a Sunday tenant.” The space would be used for other purposes the rest of the week, he said.
“…We couldn’t operate here without honoring the significance of this place,” Smith said. “It’s yet to be determined what that means. So that’s part of what this season is about, is discovering, season casting, hearing from a wide constituency in Memphis how might this asset be put to use?”
Thompson said there is no estimate on how much it will cost to fully restore the building, because they have not consulted with architects and builders. So far, they have done “some very modest enhancements and adjustments” to make sure the church is safe enough to host visitors, he said.
The building has been power-washed twice and workers with Montgomery Martin Contractors were busy Tuesday afternoon drilling and sawing in various rooms and hallways. The floor in the main worship area was replaced due to severe water damage, and pieces of exposed limestone peek through the drywall in some spots. Thompson said many of the windows were boarded up when the work first began a few months ago, but when they were removed construction crews found many windows were still in place.
There is no specific timeline to finish the project, but both men said they feel pressure to get it done soon.
“We need to hurry up and do something because in April of 2018, when the world of journalists come to Memphis to say, ‘OK, it’s been 50 years now since King’s assassination, how’s it going in Memphis?’ We’d like to have something really amazing to show that we finally have made progress,” Smith said.