Hamburg church receives historic preservation grant

The Rev. Greg Comer surveys the scaffolding set up in the sanctuary of First UMC Hamburg. COURTESY PHOTO

The Rev. Greg Comer surveys the scaffolding set up in the sanctuary of First UMC Hamburg.

By Amy Forbus

First United Methodist Church Hamburg has faced a daunting architectural challenge this year, but the congregation’s plan for restoration is becoming a reality thanks to some large-scale support.

In January, the church discovered significant damage to its 110-year-old sanctuary.

“I said, ‘We’ve got problems with this wall,’” recalls the Rev. Greg Comer, the church’s pastor. “The inspector took a look and said, ‘Oh, my.’”

A design flaw had allowed water to back up in one of the walls, causing damage that didn’t become visible until it was severe. “The roof was in danger of falling in,” Comer said.

Church leaders made arrangements to stabilize the roof. When they realized that one of the beams had slipped down more than a foot, they moved worship to the fellowship hall until further notice.

They contacted the Department of Arkansas Heritage and the National Register of Historic Places, upon which the building is listed. Through those organizations, they learned that grant funding might be available to help with the cost of repairs that also would preserve the building’s noteworthy architectural features.

In June, Comer received word from Governor Asa Hutchinson that the church would receive a $75,000 grant through the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program. Those funds, combined with an anonymous gift of $45,000 and profits from the sale of a house that had been donated to the church, go a long way toward covering the necessary repairs.

Plans feature placing a new 40-foot-long beam under the highest point of the roof. Under the terms of the grant, the target date for completion is July 1, 2016. A local company with experience in restoration projects will handle the work. In the meantime, preparation has included removing the original tin ceiling tiles, which were affixed to hardwood with nearly 100 nails each, and removing the stained glass windows, which will be refurbished before reinstallation.

During the unexpected relocation, Comer has been happy to see a steady level of church attendance and activities.

“We haven’t given up ministry… it’s one of those things we just kind of have to focus on at the moment,” he says.

To some extent, the repairs have even served as a rallying point for the congregation and the community.

“It’s generated an interest from the community that we haven’t had before,” Comer said, noting that non-members inquire about the project’s progress when he’s out around town. He also has received several emails from people he’s never met, who write to share what the church has meant to them over the years. The major anonymous donor toward the project shared that his gift was a result of the impact that the church has made on his life.

“[The restoration] has helped us to realize the heritage of this church, and the people whose lives have been touched,” Comer said.