Clayborn Restoration Momentum Builds

By Bill Dries

For the first time in 18 years, the 19th-century chandelier in the Clayborn Temple sanctuary was in working order, shedding light Tuesday, Oct. 25, on several hundred people gathered along with leaders of eight different denominations and faiths.

Following its “blessing ceremony” this week, Clayborn Temple’s previtalization process is underway.

(Alan Howell)

The clerics and religious leaders spoke from a platform, with a mostly exposed stone column that once had been covered in plaster at stage left.

Folding chairs were where the pews once were on a plywood floor. Plexiglass filled in gaps in a few stained-glass windows and some missing balcony railing.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we haven’t renovated the building yet,” said Rob Thompson, who along with Frank Smith, is a co-owner of the Downtown landmark, leading the basic work for the last year to gain title to the church and make basic repairs to get it to and beyond the Tuesday “blessing ceremony.”

Montgomery Martin Contractors and others have donated more than $100,000 in materials and services so far to get the church, which still has many of its spectacular stained-glass windows in place, to the point of considering what’s next.

“We actually didn’t know if they were still there,” Thompson said of the windows covered over with plywood. “It was raining inside the building.”

Tuesday’s ceremony was followed by a call to artists that already has been heeded by Darlene Newman, whose mural has replaced the plywood on some of the window frames on the Pontotoc Street side of the church. A grant from the Downtown Memphis Commission made it possible.

Thompson approached Beverly Robertson, who had recently retired as president of the National Civil Rights Museum, seeking advice on what to do.

Robertson, who had overseen a $27 million renovation and expansion of the museum, was direct with Thompson.

”The first thing you need to do is get smart about it, and once you get smart about it, begin to talk to the community and the people around here so you understand how to inform and program the space,” Robertson remembered telling Thompson and others. “You had a lot of things operating out of here. … It’s always been an active site before it shut down.”

Thompson began a crash course on the history of a church that has had a life bigger than a given congregation.

“Frank and I are white, so not only did we need some guidance, we needed some help,” Thompson said of the outreach. “We have a responsibility, all of us, to ensure that that history is not only not forgotten but is internalized and applied to the future. … We needed to clean this place up and go out and find the community.”