A national nonprofit is funding some restoration work at a storied Russell neighborhood church.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation awarded Louisville Metro Government $100,000 last week for Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The grant was offered through the trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.
The Quinn Chapel AME’s congregation moved to another location two decades ago, when it was sold the building. It became vacant then and has since experienced noticeable degradation and vandalism.
The structure is a significant part of the city’s history. Built in the 1860s, it was previously used by other faith groups before an AME congregation moved into the space in 1910 and stayed there for almost a century.
Quinn Chapel’s place in Louisville history
The church was tied to the struggle for racial justice, according to Savannah Darr, the city’s historic preservation officer. She said the congregation fought against housing segregation in the 1910s, and that the building was the birthplace of the first Louisville NAACP branch.
During protests against local ordinances promoting segregation in the 1960s, marches began at the church and went south all the way to Churchill Downs, Darr said. Martin Luther King, Jr. also spoke at the church to support the cause.
“He came to encourage those that were protesting to stay strong, and to keep protesting and keep fighting for those civil rights,” said Darr, who works in the Metro Office of Planning and Design Services and is helping with preservation efforts.
The church was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. That agency updated its entry on the church in 2020, identifying it as nationally significant and detailing its importance to civil rights and racial justice.
The Quinn Chapel AME’s leadership sold the church to the YMCA of Greater Louisville in 2002, which had a center next door. The congregation moved within Russell to its current location on Muhammad Ali Boulevard, and the historic Chestnut Street building has been unused since.
Steve Tarver, the CEO of the local YMCA since 2000, said his organization bought the church to protect it and the block, but never established a plan for what to do with it.
“The interior of it was not renovated in such [a way] that we could have put it into immediate use without a large amount of money to support,” he said.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s grant awarded last week will go toward electrical work, said Darr. It’s part of a larger goal of renovating the building for future use.
Darr and Tarver said community members will be consulted on the future of the church, including through direct outreach. A press release from the city said both Metro and the YMCA plan to renew community discussions later this year.
According to Darr, an open house for talks was held in 2019, but further progress stalled due to the pandemic.
“We want it to have the ability to serve the community again, but also for the community to come to this building as they used to,” she said.
Troy Thomas, the pastor of the Quinn Chapel AME, said he hopes his community can have a say. He’s been with the church since 2014 and said some trustees took part in services at the historic chapel, though to his knowledge no one has been contacted about the preservation efforts yet.
“We’re glad that finally something is being done with the property because our name is still listed on that,” Thomas said.
Deborah Todd is a longtime resident of City View Park Apartments, located across the street from the deteriorated church. She said she remembers when the building was still in use and said converting it into a space for unhoused residents would be beneficial.
“They could fix it up and convert it into rooms to get the homeless off the street, out of the cold and out of the heat,” she said. “I think that will probably be one of the better reasons to use it.”
Since 2017, the city has received nearly $1.5 million in National Park Service grants toward Quinn Chapel and has itself added $150,000 toward renovations. Darr said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also provided funding through its Choice Neighborhoods program.
Some work on the church has already begun or been completed, with a focus on stabilizing the exterior of the building like the front porch and walls, according to Darr. The YMCA also put $400,000 toward the building, which helped pay for roof repairs.