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NMSU helps historic chapel from crumbling to the ground with the aid of DACC students

Imagine a simple one-room adobe chapel, a gathering place for its congregants for more than a century, a little piece of state and national treasure right here in Las Cruces' back yard. Now imagine that chapel cracking from the foundation to the walls, the windows and doors barely hanging on their hinges and paint chipping over large sections of the sacred structure.

Phillips Chapel houses a small congregation of elderly people and is located in the heart of the African American community in Las Cruces. The structure is more than a century old. (Photo courtesy Beth O'Leary)

Phillips Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church was built in 1908 and was even used as a school house during segregation in the 1920s and 1930s, but its mostly elderly congregation has no way of completing the needed repairs. Enter, Doņa Ana Branch Community College Building Construction Technology professor Ronald Taylor, who has designed a plan for stabilizing the structure as part of a hands-on classroom project.

"The class will be taught next spring semester and we'll be using a textbook on adobe conservation written by Jean Fulton of Cornerstones," Taylor said. Cornerstones Community Partnerships works with surrounding areas to restore historic structures. The course also will cover the processes involved with historical documentation and national registry nominations.

Taylor, along with NMSU History professor and Phillips Chapel trustee Clarence Fielder, Anthropology professor Beth O'Leary, Engineering professor Sonya Cooper and chapel minister Michael Grady, has developed a method to prevent ongoing problems with the adobe walls and faulty drainage system, as well as addressing the structure's many other damages. Taylor and his students will rehabilitate the chapel using preservation standards.

"We'll work on small sections at a time, starting with the foundation," Taylor said. "We'll embed lava rock joints throughout the adobe to re-stabilize it, and work on the color wash and the windows, too."

Fielder said the structure has never been renovated with the exception of plumbing installation and a wheelchair ramp.

"I've attended Phillips Chapel all my life," Fielder said, "It's the backbone of the black community."

The small congregation is unable to fund the necessary repairs, which are budgeted at $10,000, so a fundraiser has been scheduled for Oct. 11 at 3 p.m. at the church, located at 638 Tornillo St. The Oldies but Goodies band will perform, and presentations from Fielder on the history of the chapel, and Taylor on the stabilization plans are included in the event.

The main cost of the project is for materials, but assistance is also requested in the form of professional expertise and monetary donations, which would be tax deductible.

Phillips Chapel sits on the corner of North Tornillo Street and Lucero Avenue within the Mesquite Street Original Townsite Historic District in an ethnically mixed neighborhood of Hispanics and African Americans. In 2003, Fielder and graduate student Terry Moody nominated the chapel to the State Register of Cultural Projects and the National Register of Historic Places.

Also in that year, Fielder and Moody received a New Mexico Endowment for the Humanities grant to create a photo exhibit documenting the history of the Las Cruces African American community. While it has made several appearances in local venues, the exhibit will be showcased at the African American Museum in Albuquerque in 2010.

For more information on Phillips Chapel visit http://www.newmexicohistory.org, or to make a donation contact Clarence Fielder at 524-7210 or maryehol@nmsu.edu; Beth O'Leary at 646-2560 or boleary@nmsu.edu; or Ron Taylor at 644-7404 or rtaylor@dacc.nmsu.edu.

Contributions can be made to:

Phillips Chapel CME Church

C/O Clarence Fielder

640 N. Almendra St.

Las Cruces, NM 88001