Next month, the Burns-Belfry in Oxford, which has roots that go all the way back to the 19th century, will again be filled with the sound of joy when it is dedicated as a new museum and gathering place.
For generations, the African American community came together at Burns-Belfry to worship. On Sept. 21, it will officially begin its new life as both a museum and meeting facility.
Officials have every right to be pleased as the multi-phase project that began more than a decade ago has not been without its challenges.
“In essence what we had was a historic building that had totally failed,” said Jim Pryor, who is managing the project for the Oxford-Lafayette County Heritage Foundation with assistance from the Oxford Development Association.
The original wooden facility was built in Oxford in 1870, the first church in the city to be built by recently freed slaves. In 1910, the original Methodist Episcopal Church was replaced with a brick structure on Jackson Street.
It went through a series of owners beginning in the mid-1970s, the last being writer John Grisham, who had originally planned to make Burns-Belfry into his office and donated the building when those plans changed.
Time was not kind to Burns-Belfry, however, and when the project started in 2002 to rehabilitate it, the building envelope was near decay.
“We had serious engineering issues,” said Pryor. “Perhaps the most challenging was we could not tear down the brick façade.”
Designed by Howorth & Associates and renovated by Hooker Construction, the build team struck a unique, creative solution — use some 1,200 metal pins to allow the brick walls to “float” while crews worked on the facility’s envelope. Once complete, they tied the bricks back in.
Now, with the interior and landscaping being finished and the initial phase of the museum being installed, the project that encompassed three phases is on track to open to the public next month.
“Phase three tackles the finer details of the exterior and interior. Now our focus is on landscaping, museum exhibits, and opening the meeting center,” Pryor said.
The new Burns-Belfry will offer history and cutting-edge technology under one roof. The interior has been renovated to its original look, including colored glass windows.
However, it will also offer modern adjustable lighting conducive for a meeting facility, a sound system that will pipe in the sounds of a worship service including preacher, organ and choir and the church’s history will be offered on touch screens and displays along the church’s walls.
The plans for the meeting space includes a drop-down video screen and full audio-visual capabilities.
To date, organizers have raised $1.7 million through federal, state and local grants and donations, the most significant being Ray Neilsen, former chairman of the board of Ameristar Casinos and current chairman of the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation who stumbled across the shuttered building just as phase one of the reconstruction began.
“I had ridden by the site,” Neilsen said, “and noticed the building was there – and what a spectacular building it was.”
In total, Nielsen has personally given $220,000 to the project — $90,000 for the building and $130,000 for the museum. He has also volunteered to lend a hand to the landscaping.
The project still needs about $150,000 for completion. Interested parties can contact Pryor at (662) 801-4087.
For more on Burns-Belfry, visit www.burns-belfry.com/.