Restored Ebenezer Baptist Church reopens Friday

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Fifty years after his death, King??€™s friend and ambassador Andrew Young said he still struggles with his death.

After more than four years of refurbishing Ebenezer Baptist Church, the one thing that Peter Holness is most excited about is the work that was done beneath the balcony -- which seems, well, not that impressive to the untrained eye.

But standing beneath it, he recounts how workers not only replaced the support beams but also carefully numbered and re–installed every piece of tile and plaster that was removed to make the repair.

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AND THE OLD SHALL BECOME NEW--The original pews were among the many items restored during the renovation of the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church's Heritage Sanctuary shown in this photo taken Thursday, Apr 14, 2011. After 3 years of work and millions of dollars, the National Park Service will open the historic site on Friday. It closed in 2007 for a major project to restore them to their 1960s appearance.

Credit: Johnny Crawford

AND THE OLD SHALL BECOME NEW--The original pews were among the many items restored during the renovation of the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church's Heritage Sanctuary shown in this photo taken Thursday, Apr 14, 2011. After 3 years of work and millions of dollars, the National Park Service will open the historic site on Friday. It closed in 2007 for a major project to restore them to their 1960s appearance.

Credit: Johnny Crawford

Combined ShapeCaption
AND THE OLD SHALL BECOME NEW--The original pews were among the many items restored during the renovation of the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church's Heritage Sanctuary shown in this photo taken Thursday, Apr 14, 2011. After 3 years of work and millions of dollars, the National Park Service will open the historic site on Friday. It closed in 2007 for a major project to restore them to their 1960s appearance.

Credit: Johnny Crawford

Credit: Johnny Crawford

Holness, the project manager for Keystone Restorations, which oversaw the project, sees a lot. But to someone making their first trip to the 89-year-old church – or someone who hasn’t been there since 1968 – the changes are hardly noticeable. Which is exactly what he was going for.

“On a whole, we haven’t changed anything. But we have updated and modernized things,” Holness said. “People will come in and see a warm and welcoming church. They will feel the emotions. I didn’t just see it as a church. I saw this as someone's home I had to be mindful of that.”

Friday, for the first time since 2007, visitors to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, will have a chance to venture inside Ebenezer Baptist Church, which along with the National Cathedral in Washington and St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, is one of the most important churches in the country.

It is the Late Gothic Revival-designed church, which opened in 1922, where King was baptized at the age of 5. It is also where he delivered his first sermon at the age of 17 and where he delivered his last one, "Drum Major Instinct,” on Feb. 4, 1968, exactly two months before he was killed.

It has been closed since 2007, when the National Park Service – which controls the facility – decided to invest around $8 million in federal and private funds to restore it back to how it looked in the 1960s, when King was co-pastor along with his father.

For Friday’s reopening ceremony, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will be joined by NPS Director John Jarvis, as well as Bernice King and Martin Luther King III. King’s only living sibling, Christine King Farris, will be named by the NPS as an honorary ranger, the highest honor given by the Park.

“I am just glad to see that this day has come,” said David Ates, project manager for the NPS’s southeast region. “It has been a labor of love for us. ...We have probably touched every inch of this building, inside and outside.”

Aside from modernizing the roof, wiring and air-conditioning, the church also took a step back in time.

The white walls are now coral and the Plexiglas window covers have been removed, revealing stunning painted glass windows that bathe the church in natural, warm light. Pews have been refinished, but the nicks and marks of age remain; the baptismal tub is operational; the old green and white-tiled floor of the fellowship hall floor is back; the sidewalk pavings at the door of the church are octagon in design again; and the blue EBENEZER BAPTIST CHURCH sign somehow shines brighter.

The only new items in the church are the organ and the choir stand chairs, although they remain vintage.

“I am in awe over the beauty of all of this and how powerful it is,” said Judy Forte, the superintendent of the site. “I am excited that the American public will be able to experience Ebenezer the way it was meant to be experienced.”

Holness first became aware of Ebenezer several years ago, when he saw a documentary in his native United Kingdom. In 2000, he booked a vacation for him and his mother to tour the King Historic District. Seven years later, he was directing the church's restoration, often visiting the site seven days a week.

“Whenever there was a great shower of rain, I would run back here to make sure that the pumps were running and the roof was not leaking,” Holness said standing beneath the balcony. “Sometimes at midnight, I would come to make sure everything was alright. I feel a part of this church.”