For months, Fort Smith native Vini Scott drove by the Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church building and felt fascination, yet he lacked the courage to take a longer, closer look.
Located at 723 N. Eighth St., the historic structure finally caused Scott's inhibitions to fall. Scott wanted to learn more about the brick-heavy structure — so much so that he recently formed the Quinn Chapel Restoration Society and started the Go Fund Me website page, www.gofundme.com/quinn-chapel-restoration-society. The page "hopefully" will raise $10,000 via community donations by January to help pay for some of the costs for the structure's needed repairs, he said.
"This is a grassroots thing to get people together to help save and preserve an important historical piece of architecture," said Scott. "This really is a call-for-action statement because I'm not in it for myself. I've had a nonprofit, THEWORD Inc., since 2012, and this is part of that.
"If we can raise $10,000 by the first part of 2018, then I will have an opportunity to apply for a matching grant with the Arkansas Historic Preservation Society," he added. "The grant essentially would get matched, so there would be $20,000, which would enable us to get the two stairwells fixed."
In need of repair are two exterior stairwells, which are made of "composite concrete," Scott said. The money raised from the Go Fund Me page will be used to replace the composite concrete with "an historically accurate solid concrete stairwell that will stay," he said.
"The steps on both sides of the building are crumbling into the street, basically," Scott said.
According to Scott, having Quinn Chapel's stairs fixed will accomplish a two-fold goal. It will forestall any legal actions and/or financial problems for Quinn Chapel's congregation while the building is unoccupied; Quinn Chapel staff and members started having their services and activities at another location in 2014, he said.
"The second part is, hopefully it can attract the attention of a philanthropist who has the means and heart for a project this size," Scott said. "This is a public-relations thing for the building, and it's (help for) the congregation, who can't afford to fix it."
Other problems at the Quinn Chapel structure include flooding in the basement, an out-of-date electrical system and the presence of many bats, he said.
"In order for these problems to be taken care of, it will require a substantial amount of money," Scott said. "To get the building into a dry-in, functioning state, it would be about $500,000, but in order to do the foundation work that will be needed to prevent the flooding problem, the extermination issue of the bat infestation and modifications to the interior structure to get it up to specifications, it could cost in the millions."
Quinn Chapel Trustee board member Tina Marable Norwood said she and others were "excited" when Scott started the Go Fund Me page.
"Vini has been in contact with us, and he's been wanting to do something to restore Quinn," she said. "He's really been reaching out."
Quinn Chapel's congregation has about 40 members who meet at 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. Sundays for Sunday School and worship services, respectively, at the old Campbell Chapel, 4200 Young St. Norwood said it is her hope that Quinn Chapel can be preserved and later opened as "a type of museum or community center" to benefit all ages.
"It will probably cost at least $1 million to restore Quinn Chapel to its original state," she said."The AME Church owns the building. Our local church has the authority to make adjustments as long as we let the big church know what we are doing."
Completed in 1917, Quinn Chapel was "the first African-American church built in Fort Smith," Scott said.
"When I say built, I mean it was the first brick-and-mortar, permanent structure," he said. "It was built by volunteers who mostly were African-American, and it began construction in the early parts of the first decade of the 1900s.
"The actual church congregation has existed in Fort Smith since the late 1880s," Scott added.
Norwood said she remembers seeing photographs of the church throughout her childhood.
"Quinn Chapel has been flooding since I was a little girl," she said. "The building probably has been flooding since it was built in 1917. When I was a child, I would see photographs of the flooding there. They had boats floating around; that is how much flooding goes on down there."
Todd Perry, a Fort Smith historian who works on various research projects to help preserve African-American heritage in the area, praised Scott's Go Fund Me page.
"I am grateful that Vini Scott is preserving this project," Perry said. "What a blessing, and prayerfully, the restoration project will be a major success in our city. I am glad to know others are getting involved."
Among the many members of the congregation were jazz musician Alfonso Trent and his mother, Hattie Smith Trent; Hattie was president of the Twin City Hospital Auxiliary, he said.
"When I look at the building, I see a Fort Smith treasure," Scott said. "I see something that needs to be saved. It's historical, and to the best of my knowledge, it's the only structure of its kind in regards to African-American history still left in Fort Smith. Once people wrap their heads around that, this project could take off."
Scott said he will attend the Arkansas Historic Preservation Society's workshop Nov. 2 to learn how to write grants.
"I am trying to help create community interest in seeing the building preserved," he said. "And I am working on a new website right now that will transition this Go Fund Me project into a standalone website. It may be a couple weeks before I can do that, but the new website will have a PayPal button. That way, all of the money donated will go directly to repairing Quinn Chapel, versus the percentage that Go Fund Me charges."
As of press time, Scott's Go Fund Me page had raised $285. Scott said he felt confident more people will give to the cause in the coming weeks.
"Absolutely, I think it will happen," he said. "School groups, civic groups, churches, families, everyone can donate to the project. It's my hope that they do.
"Quinn Chapel really should be like a Google Maps sign post," Scott said. "I think when someone goes onto the Chamber of Commerce's website, a photo of Quinn Chapel should be seen. That's how I feel about Quinn Chapel."