AUBURN — The steeple of the Wall Street Methodist Episcopal Church in Auburn has been a visible landmark in the city for more than 130 years. But, after being vacated in the early 2000s, the historic building has deteriorated enough to put its future in doubt.
The church was recently placed on the Eight That Can't Wait list by the Preservation Association of Central New York, a designation meant to raise public awareness about historic resources threatened by neglect, natural disasters and more.
The Wall Street church, which is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was placed on the list as part of a group item identifying several urban neighborhood churches in the five county region that are in someway threatened, including churches in Cortland and Syracuse.
Preservation Association Board Member Andrew Roblee, also the former Facilities Manager at the Seward House Museum, said the advocacy non-profit placed the church on the list because it represents a trend throughout the area.
“It's a theme in our area that I think as congregations shrink and demographics shrink and neighborhoods change some of these churches get abandoned," Roblee said, later adding "Once these churches are closed, it's really hard to find a new use that can sustain it."
Many such churches acted as anchors that "held neighborhoods together," Roblee said, especially in neighborhoods of one prevailing ethnicity.
The Gothic Revival-style Wall Street church, however, is notable for having an early biracial congregation in the 19th century that included Harriet Tubman's nephew, according to the Preservation Association's listing.
Partly due to the shrinking and subsequent consolidation facing many churches and neighborhood schools across the country, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, which called the building home since 1993, was forced to vacate in the early 2000s after being unable to afford repairs.
Representatives from the A.M.E. Zion Church could not be reached for comment.
The building has deteriorated further since then. In 2014, the church was listed as a hazardous property by the city of Auburn, which also installed a perimeter fence after bricks and debris began to fall onto nearby sidewalks.
At that time, the city's then-corporation counsel, John Rossi, told The Citizen a review by structural experts found stabilization repairs would likely cost approximately $30,000 to $36,000 to address the roof and water damage.
City officials did not return requests for comment this week.
Part of the reasoning behind the Eight That Can't Wait list, rather than just identifying threatened buildings, is to encourage the possibility of reuse or preservation.
Thanks in part to its inclusion on the National Register, the building is eligible for tax credits, and may be eligible for an array of private and public grants. With a committed backer, the listing says the church could be rehabilitated into an ideal space for a community center, a performance space or a support facility for the nearby state prison.