A Matter of Faith: A Determined Missouri Community Saves Their Historic African American Church
The first step was to rotate it.
Sitting atop a massive hydraulic dolly was Timmons Temple, an approximately 440,000-pound historic African American church building in Springfield, Missouri. With the flick of a joystick, the dolly slowly spun, positioning the stone church so that it could be eased onto the main road. Many careful adjustments later, the structure was on the way to its new home about 600 feet away in Silver Spring Park.
That day in March of 2015 marked both the end of journey and the beginning of a new one for Lori Tack and the nonprofit Friends of Timmons Temple (FOTT). The year preceding it had been a whirlwind of discussions and fundraising and brainstorming, a product of the dire situation Timmons had found itself in. Once at the brink of demolition, the structure had been successfully preserved and relocated, allowing Tack and the rest of their organization to turn their attention to the task of restoring it and preparing it for its future.
And now, three years later, the second phase of their work is complete. The rechristened Timmons Hall received its certificate of occupancy earlier this month, putting it on track to reopen as a community space and event venue in the coming weeks.Says Tack: “It’s like graduating from college, where you put in all this work and all this time—then all of a sudden you graduate, and you’re kind of like, now what?”
In 1932, Elder Carter Timmons pulled the stone used to build Timmons Temple from the nearby Jordan Creek with an ox-drawn carriage. Before long, the church had become a cornerstone of Springfield’s African American community, far more than a place of worship. It was a gathering spot for people to socialize, commiserate, and unify. It hosted dinners, revivals, and services throughout the week; there was scarcely a time it was ever empty. For a city as intensely segregated as Springfield was until the mid-20th century—when schools were integrated following Brown v. Board of Education—and which saw a horrific lynching take place in 1906, such a place was invaluable.
Music also played a prominent role: The sounds of pianos, guitars, and tambourines could often be heard emanating from its doors. Springfield sat in the middle of a music triangle between St. Louis; Memphis, Tennessee; and Kansas City, Missouri, making it an ideal place for performers to stop by and put on a quick show before continuing on their way.
Christine Peoples emphasizes the kind of community that Timmons once embodied, likening it to “a watering hole.” She is an outreach minister in Springfield, organizing activities and serving as a liaison between local churches and her neighborhood. When she met Tack and found out what the Friends of Timmons Temple were trying to accomplish, she knew she had to help, encouraging and supporting them in any way she could. “I knew [preserving Timmons] was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our kids to know the history of what their parents and grandparents meant to the community, and what they had labored for,” she says. “I wanted them to feel the same hospitality that was felt back then.”
That history became threatened in 2014, when Sanctuary of Praise—the last church to use the building—outgrew the space and sold it to TLC Properties, who planned to tear it down to make room for an apartment complex. Some community members were stunned and angered by this turn of events, but it seemed it was too late for anything to be done.
When Tack first encountered the temple, she was immediately drawn to the aesthetics of its Ozark vernacular architecture. “The beauty of the building was the thing that spoke the loudest to me personally,” says Tack. “It’s a spectacular building, with sunbursts and hearts. You can tell [Pastor Timmons] took great care in placing all of those stones that came out of the creek that runs through the park.”
Tack joined the fledgling movement to save the temple in March of 2014. She felt her experience dealing with Springfield government as a program coordinator with Ozark Greenways, a nonprofit working to develop Springfield’s network of bike and walking trails, would prove valuable. She helped organize the group of concerned citizens into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and began exploring preservation alternatives.
“They went from being more of a ‘Save Timmons Temple’ group to a ‘Friends of Timmons Temple” group,’ says Bob Belote, director of parks with the Springfield-Greene County Park Board. Instead of working to keep it the same as it always was, FOTT realized that the essence of Timmons was not tied to its original use. Timmons could still be the beating heart of its community without having to remain a church.
Tack learned of cases where a historic building could not be saved, but some of its stones were used to build a monument. The idea was unthinkable as anything other than a last resort. “Imagine if this was just a pile of rocks. How different our experience connecting to the stories that happened inside that space and inside that whole park would be, how different we would learn about it. And would we really learn?” she says. “We all know that imagining a space by being in a space is much more effective than imagining something you’ve never stepped inside or even seen in real life.” But what if Timmons could be relocated?
FOTT came to TLC Properties with their proposal. When the developers heard the story of Timmons and what it meant to them, they offered to put the $70,000 that would’ve been used for the building’s demolition towards its relocation instead. The contribution reinvigorated the local community. Suddenly, donations were flooding in from all different directions. Every dollar was vital—even before considering restoration costs, moving Timmons would take $105,000, and the developer’s timeline meant funds needed to be hastily secured. The outpouring of support also came in the form of stories, as former members of the congregation recalled Timmons’ time as the center of the community. Though Timmons had lost some of its vibrancy in its last years as a church, it still struck a chord with the many who found refuge in it throughout the years.
As for where Timmons’ new home should be, Silver Spring Park, which celebrated its centennial this year, was a clear choice. For many years, Silver Spring had been the only park in Springfield open to African Americans. In addition, the creek that Timmons’ stones were drawn from ran through the park, and Timmons shared architectural features with many of the park’s buildings.
Of course, there was no shortage of obstacles to accompany such a monumental task. Belote informed FOTT of some of these when they approached his department about moving Timmons into the park. The two most pressing ones were the Park Board’s tight budget and the fact that much of Silver Spring Park sits in a flood plain, one that had seen two major floods in the preceding year. Belote gave Tack and FOTT some “tough love,” challenging them to consider long-term goals and how Timmons would be integrated into the park. He wanted to make sure Timmons would be a contributing amenity that enhanced its overall experience without drawing resources from other parts of the park.
Belote came away convinced that FOTT had the support and drive to see the project through. He found a place outside the flood plain to place Timmons, where it could also serve as a trailhead for the new Jordan Creek Trail. “When you’ve got a group whose heart is in the right place, and has the initiative to back it up, just about anything is possible,” he says. “There were all kinds of issues along the way, but this very small grassroots group didn’t want to see that important piece of Springfield history go away.”
In terms of restoration work needed, however, there was relatively little to be done. Even over 80 years after its construction, Timmons’ bones were sturdy. FOTT removed non-historic paneling and replaced double-hung windows with recycled 1800s glass. They uncovered Timmons’ original walls and beadboard ceiling and restored its heart pine floor. They discovered hand-painted wainscoting around the room that was too far gone to be saved but could be color matched and recreated. Beyond that, it was simply a matter of connecting it to utilities, making it ADA accessible, and bringing it into the modern day. The final price tag came out to $200,000, not including in-kind contributions. Private donations funded the majority of the project.Timmons Hall held an open house during Park Day back in the first week of August, and Tack and Peoples are now hard at work developing Timmons Hall’s initial programming, which may include an inaugural cultural performance series that puts the spotlight on underrepresented voices in the community. There will be dinners, celebrations, and music. There will be longtime residents who remember Pastor Timmons’ sermons and musical talent, and there will be newcomers attracted to its stone exterior stopping in to check it out. The vibrant Timmons community, once in danger of being lost forever, will have found new life, thanks to all of its members who never lost their faith.