Historic Preservation Feature is a series of articles on the efforts to save and reuse historic buildings, districts and sites in Pennsylvania.


To a world in a state of con­stant change, today’s goals and cherished values may well be­come tomorrow’s prohibitions. The original idea of restoration – getting people to return to an undervalued old part of town – was understood only in positive terms, until gradually, it be­came apparent that some people at least were moving out or being moved out as a result.

Shadows of guilt began to fall. Nevertheless, (in the shadows) some­thing else was occurring. People were, as they often do, beginning to learn that negative spin-offs were not written in stone and could, with some concern and effort, be mitigated. The Bethel A.M.E. Church Restoration Committee has succeeded not only in securing Community Development monies for their project, but further, has also been awarded money from the PHMC to further assist in restoration work. Finally, and most happily, this subject of historic preservation has enjoyed an expanding audience in Reading’s mi­nority community, and the Bethel group – at least from the point of view of the “gentry” group of preservation­ists here – is in that inner-circle of people leading the way to a preserved, restored and cherished downtown Reading.


The Saving of Old Bethel

The first time the little group ap­peared, they were thought to be government employees. From within little cubicles in the Community De­velopment Office, staff members saw four well-dressed black men and women walking deliberately toward a small conference room in Reading’s City Hall. Their briefcases and deliberate tread created the impression that the office was about to be studied, audited or investigated by the higher-ups who from time to lime check on activities at the local level. Not until two hours later, when the same group was again passing by those same cubicle doors in the other direction, did staff learn that they had been watching the Restora­tion Committee of the Bethel A.M.E. Church in their first stages of request­ing funds to rehabilitate and restore their old church building.

One of those “government offi­cials,” Pastor Andrew Holtz, stopped in front of one of the CD staff mem­bers’ doors and asked to have a word with her, insofar as he had just heard that she had been one of the organizers of the Callowhill District, Reading’s first historic district. Perhaps she could offer a word of advice or encourage­ment to these people from the Bethel A.M.E. Church. It was on that day, over a year ago, that another one of the “government officials,” Mr. Frank Gilyard, met the CD staff. He ap­peared as the church member in charge of property maintenance and repair.

That day, the Bethel members had a long chat with Edward Swoyer, the CD director, and me, the historic preservation volunteer, introducing us to the particulars of the project. Its goal was the restoration and rehabilita­tion of the building which had been designated as “Old Bethel,” to distin­guish it from the newer building sev­eral miles away which was now housing all the church functions. It was also on that day that this restoration com­mittee, as they came to be known, first presented for “public inspection” the gravure photo of the beautiful interior of Old Bethel following its 1898 restoration. This precious item was lovingly placed into the Xerox machine, and a copy of it became the first item in Community Develop­ment’s “Old Bethel” file, a file which was to greatly expand as office in­volvement with the project deepened.

Details of this initial encounter are presented here because they reveal certain attitudes, unfortunate as they may be, held by at least one observer which are among the “myths” of his­toric preservation – namely that minor­ities don’t get involved … (they had to be in the office for government work­ – it couldn’t possibly be for involvement in something like a preservation effort) and that, minorities don’! have an ex­tant architectural heritage with which to get involved, even if they wished to.

The year prior to the CD staff mem­bers’ meeting with the church mem­bers at Bethel, several staffers had worked in a downtown neighborhood organizing inner-city residents into Reading’s first historic district. Among themselves, they recalled that in their private enclaves they had discussed, on different occasions, a new word they had encountered in their preservation reading materials – or at least it was new to them. The word was “gentrification,” the movement of (middle­-class) white families back into the cities, with the consequent displace­ment of minority persons, especially those in the lower income bracket.

To many of those involved in that early effort, the one disquieting thought that tainted an otherwise totally enthusiastic commitment to historic preservation was the “gentrification” idea, a prospect which city employees found perhaps even more uncomfortable than some other pe­rsons in the group. The conclusions that were drawn at that time were, in general terms, based on the underlying premise that gentrification was an inevitable part of almost all successful inner-city preservation projects. Un­fortunately the Reading group, too, subscribed to the myths mentioned earlier – minorities don’t care about and don’t get involved in historic preservation because architecture rele­vant to their history doesn’t exist.

During the large organizational meetings ‘which marked the final days before the organizers’ application for districting was accepted by the city, citizen attendance grew large, and several organizers were pleased to see that they had attracted a small number of Hispanic homeowners who lived in the neighborhood. At that time, the thought occurred to some that perhaps their worst fears about gentrification might not be realized.

That was over two years ago. Today, having worked with the committee from the Bethel Church, those “CD” people involved in the early organiza­tional efforts are now convinced that gentrification, in its broad scope, is not inevitable. The myths about the minority community are simply that, and do not realistically reflect what actually exists. Recent articles in periodicals about historic preservation testify to persons in other cities also having to rethink their original attitudes on the subject.

The Bethel committee, in taking the initiative to undertake what can only be described as a monumental project, certainly dispelled in many minds the myth that minority groups aren’t interested in historic preserva­tion. By the time they formally approached the Community Develop­ment Office for potential funding, they had already begun to acquire a vast “file” of information and to modify earlier points of view, two ex­periences which also characterize the “gentry” who get involved in preservation for the first time. Their little group of experts – Andrew Holtz, the initiator; Richard Johnson, the his­torian (see inset); Frank Gilyard, the building technician; Ernestine Boles and Edie Key, the organizers; and others – experienced a certain kind of growth. Having looked at their own building five hundred times for archi­tectural details, having talked to the stained-glass expert about what motif would be most appropriate to pursue (the building has had its original con­struction and two widely separated periods of renovation from which to choose a design), having struggled through the processes of locating and obtaining technical advice from archi­tects who specialize in restoration, having designed and prepared a success­ful funding proposal, having sat through almost innumerable meetings, having endured all this-their perspective changed.

They now look up at cornices and lintels to spot a Victorian or a Federal feature. They begin to realize that the old building which now houses one of the black community’s political clubs is in fact a “Second Empire.” instead of a big, funny old building. All this is detailed here to illustrate that the process of involvement is the same for all groups if the spark of a sense of belonging is present.

It is not that the minority commun­ity has no buildings which it can iden­tify as part of its own history. Old Bethel is a particularly good case in point. A building which for years sat almost totally unused and which seemed to many of the church mem­bers to be a white elephant which needed to be “unloaded,” has now be­come the gem in the collection of Bethel A.M.E.’s worldly goods. Observ­ing the church membership move into this new and sometimes strange world of the preservationist has provided some poignant moments for early or­ganizers now in the Community De­velopment Office. Watching the com­mittee members on their hands and knees brushing the dust of years from church furnishings stored in Old Bethel’s upper room, they found it difficult not to view the scene as sym­bolic of the American black commun­ity’s gradual awakening to its powerful place in our national history.



It would be easy to fall prey to a sentimentalizing of the activities of this group. This would be, in all probability, a fatal mistake, for the Bethel group still has a long process ahead of itself before the restored church is a reality. Anything which would cause them to be introspective for too long instead of focusing in on plumbing, plastering, painting and all the atten­dant tediums of restoration work would be not much more than the draining off of energy. Such senti­mentalizing could very well lead away from attempts to draw attention to the issue at hand, that of debunking the myths to which many early preser­vation efforts have fallen prey.

Gentrification is not going to dis­appear totally, even if the myths are banished. The class structure in the United States still painfully reflects those larger myths based upon race and nationality which have not yet been successfully eradicated. Neverthe­less, it should be proposed that those persons involved in preservation, who according to another myth belong to that group known as the gentry, need to make it their business not to accept gentrification as a fait accompli. Spe­cial efforts – affirmative action efforts, as it were – can be made (and apparent­ly occasionally now are being made) to involve minority neighborhood per­sons in areas where preservation activi­ties are occurring. Particular liaison and recruitment efforts can be de­veloped to reach out to minority groups (churches and clubs are good places to start) in issuing invitations to preservation meetings and in making educational presentations about preser­vation. Personal and professional con­tacts can be utilized to get a core group going.

The most important part of this effort, is reflected in the book title by Marshall McLuhan, The Medium Is the Message. Suspicions and fears need to be allayed. The sense of being wel­comed and the sense of belonging need to be reinforced. The notion that his­toric preservation is the purview of middle-class whites must be dispelled and replaced with the idea that preser­vation is the responsibility of all per­sons who have a commitment to future generations. At the same time, guilts which are based upon fears that pres­ervation efforts are harmful to certain segments of a community need to be dispelled.

To fail to do so, or to ignore the problem of gentrification, would be an act of negligence at best-an act of dis­crimination at worst. Preservation is, after all, an act of faith in the future as well as a recognition of the value of the past. The future requires a sense of unity of action and spirit in addressing the challenges that lie ahead. Without this unity and making real the ideals upon which greatness is based, we may not have the energy or the strength of purpose to proceed. Ultimately, the unity of the nation is the primary pres­ervation effort. . .for bringing this im­plication of historic preservation to the attention of the citizens of Callow­hill, commendation and thanks must be given to the members of the Bethel A.M.E. Church who involved them­selves without words of encouragement from the earlier preservationists in Reading. May their example serve us all well in the future.


Susan B. Hartman, the Affirmative Action Officer for the City of Reading, participated in the original organiza­tion of Reading’s first historic district – the Callowhill District. She views historic preservation as a mechanism not only to preserve buildings, but also as a means to create a sense of community.