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Historic Charles Town hall getting a face lift

April 12, 2006|by DAVE McMILLION

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - Jim Tolbert can just imagine how members of the Grand United Order of Gallilean Fishermen would feel looking at the gleaming building.

In 1885, Charles Town became home to a local chapter of a national self-help organization that gave assistance to blacks to set up banking, insurance and real estate services.

The organization had tabernacles throughout the East, and the one in Charles Town was known as the Evening Star.

The group eventually disbanded and for a time, the building at the corner of West and Academy streets sat deteriorating in a section of town that was once plagued by drug trafficking.

That's when the Jefferson County African American Community Association took over, working to breathe new life into the building. Association members wanted to get grants to restore the building, and eventually close to $300,000 was obtained from the state and the City of Charles Town to do the work, officials said.

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After seven months of restoration work, the building is showing a new facade that includes new windows, wooden siding that replicates the original type and a circular window near the roof that was part of the original design.

Tolbert, a local resident who has been working on the project, figures the members of the Grand United Order of Gallilean Fishermen would be proud.

"They would be happy as I don't know what," said Tolbert, a member of the association and president of the state chapter of the NAACP.

"A lot of people have been driving by and stopping and complimenting the workers on how nice it looks," said Tolbert, who also praised the mayor's office and City Council for supporting the project.

The building at one time had a stucco exterior and the old siding under it had to be replaced, Tolbert said.

Workers strengthened the building by covering it with plywood then adding the new wooden siding, Tolbert said.

The building originally had tall windows on the first floor but they were later replaced by smaller ones. When the restoration started, the original window frames were still in place and workers installed similar-sized windows, Tolbert said.

The building retains other original features, such as steel support rods that extend through the center of the building on the second floor, said Russell Roper, a member of the association who is overseeing the work.

The steel rods support the second floor and eliminate the need for center beams in the downstairs, Roper said.

Other exterior work under way includes construction of a handicapped access ramp on one side of the building and the rebuilding of a landing on the front, Tolbert said.

The wood siding will be sealed and then painted, Roper said.

The inside still needs to be restored and will include insulating the walls, installing new plumbing and heating, and installing drywall, Tolbert said.

More money will have to be raised for that phase of the project and Roper said that could cost around $250,000.

"We got a long way to go yet," said George Rutherford, a member of the association and president of the Jefferson County chapter of the NAACP.

Rutherford said he would like to see the building open in two years.

Tolbert said the Jefferson County African American Community Association will own and operate the building and use it to hold events like election functions and film festivals.

Tolbert said the building would be open for "anything culturally-enriching for the community."

When local residents started talking about restoring the building, volunteers and local history buffs began researching the role of the Grand United Order of Gallilean Fishermen by relying on a few old documents that were found locally.

Each of the organization's tabernacles had their own name - many using titles adapted from Christian theology - and the names included Star of Bethlehem, Ezekiel, Tree of Life, Morning Light and Rising Star.

Officials have admitted that much of the organization's mission was a mystery and gaps in black history is not unusual, adding that newspapers operated by whites then often did not pay attention to black activities.

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