Published Date Written by Craig LyonsBefore Andy and Jodi Yutzey left Denver for a vacation in Maine, Andy's grandmother gave him the address of his great-grandfather's former Portland apartment and asked him to take a picture of the building.
On Saturday while in Portland, they found the address of the Newbury Street building where his grandfather, Nells Peter Olson, lived in the 1920s but found out the building was more than just an old apartment building. It's one of the city's most historic and culturally important buildings: the Abyssinian Meeting House.
Andy Yutzy said it was just chance that they happened to be in Portland the same day the Abyssinian was open and a large crowd involved in its restoration was there.
The Committee to Restore the Abyssinian Meeting House opened the doors of the third oldest African American meeting house in the nation on Saturday in honor of Juneteenth — a holiday that marks the official end of slavery in Texas in 1865.
The Abyssinian Meeting House — which was first established in 1828 by freed slaves — was a cultural and spiritual hub for Portland's early African American community and also a part of the Underground Railroad system.
During the early 1920s, the building was turned into tenement apartments. The apartments remained in the building until the restoration project began, though many features remain visible in the interior of the meeting house.
Starting in 1997, the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian Meeting House began its planning process to start the preservation and renovation of the building.
"It's not just an old house, it has some major history," Jodi Yutzy said.
Andy Yutzy said he's not sure that his grandmother or even great-grandfather knew the history behind the building. He said all his grandmother knew was that Olson had a really small apartment on Newbury Street.
The details on Olson's history in Portland are relatively unknown, said Andy Yutzy, though it appears he was one of the building's earliest tenants when he first immigrated to America.
"We didn't expect this at all," he said. "... It's unbelievable."
Deborah Cummings Khadraoui, the founders of the restoration committee, said that since the project got started a number of different groups have been appreciative of the group's efforts to restore the historic structure.
"It's been so well received by folks interested in the project," she said. "People find it a great learning tool."
While it has moved slowly, Khadraoui said, the restoration project has made some great strides including replacing the roof, refinishing the front of the building, fixing a water issue and excavation work in the basement. She said an archaeologist will start working in the building later this summer since more historic pieces were uncovered in the basement.
With the help of a Community Development Block Grant, Khadraoui said, work will soon start on restoring the sides of the building. She said just one side costs about $250,000 because of the requirements associated with the preservation.
The project is estimated to cost at least $3 million by the time it's completed.
"It's just a massive undertaking," she said.
While the restoration work is under way, the organization has set up an internship program that will help with research and designing programming.
Khadraoui said the group of interns — which includes Kiarah Luter, Chanel Lewis, Aprille Roseboro and Kahdeem Soul — will be working on different projects during their tenure at the Abyssinian, such as developing promotional material and creating programs for students and the public.
Luter, who is from Westbrook and is attending Hampton University, said she's looking forward to the internship program starting and getting to learn more about an institution that is so significant to the history of Portland and its residents.
During one of her classes at Hampton, Luter said, she learned about the Abyssinian and now she's working at the same place her professors talked about.
Luter said it's great to see these things from history that are so close to home.
Khadraoui said the committee has a lot of supporters and is forging new partnerships, but fundraising can still be difficult. While the project is going to cost a lot of money, she said, the board is committed to seeing it get completed.
"It's all going to happen," she said. "... It's just a matter of how fast it happens."
For more information or how to donate, visit http://www.abyme.org.