National recognition sought for historic Bluffton church

The historic Campbell Chapel AME Church as seen in Bluffton on Oct. 19, 2015.  The congregation moved into their current location, next-door to this church, in 2004.
The historic Campbell Chapel AME Church as seen in Bluffton on Oct. 19, 2015. The congregation moved into their current location, next-door to this church, in 2004. dearley@islandpacket.com

One of Bluffton's oldest buildings could soon be recognized nationwide for its historical significance.

Several local groups are collaborating to nominate the Campbell Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church building for the National Register of Historic Places.

"This place matters. We want to help put it on the map," Carolyn Coppola said of the 162-year-old church.

Coppola is the director of Celebrate Bluffton, an organization dedicated to researching and promoting the town's history.

Celebrate Bluffton has teamed up with the nonprofit group A Call to Action in hopes of garnering recognition for the church's history.

Coppola said a National Register of Historic Places nomination will likely be submitted within the next two months.

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Recognizing and preserving the building is particularly important because there are so few documents relating to the church's early congregation, which was made up mainly of freed slaves.

The original building was constructed by the United Methodist Episcopal Church in 1853. It was one of only two buildings in town to survive an attack by Union forces in 1863.

In 1874, nine former slaves purchased the building and established an African Methodist Episcopal congregation there.

Through research associated with applying for the register, Pastor Jon Black said, "we want to recapture the church's history and trace as many (current congregation) members as possible back to those nine freedmen."

Campbell Chapel's current congregation meets in a newer building adjacent to the historic structure on Boundary Street. The original building now serves as a temporary home for the Iglesia Torre Fuerte congregation.

South Carolina has over 1,400 listings on the national register, but there is only one other building in Bluffton town limits on the list: the Church of the Cross on Calhoun Street.

To be listed on the register, a nomination must first be submitted to the State Historic Preservation Office. After a recommendation from that office, the National Parks Service makes the final decision.

State Historic Preservation Office staff member Andy Chandler said reviewers use a specific set of criteria to evaluate nominations. In most cases, "there has to be something of significance to the building architecturally," he said.

Coppola said Campbell Chapel's unique blend of Greek Revival and Gothic Revival architecture distinguishes it from other churches in the region.

"I haven't seen that (specific style of architecture) anywhere else in the South," she said.

Coppola said she is confident the Campbell Chapel nomination will be approved.

"They get it," she said of the state review board. "They understand the significance of this property."

Black said being listed on the register could "build visibility and credibility" for the church and help the congregation raise money for restoration projects.

He said the goal of those projects is to restore the building "as close in appearance to the original structure as possible."

Eventually, church leaders want the building to house a community center for events like weddings and workshops. Black said the site would also include a mini-museum dedicated to the church's history.

Coppola also hopes the nomination process, regardless of the outcome, will "inspire other people in Bluffton to explore local history."

"There is a story behind so many building and places here," she said. "In Bluffton, we have a wonderful opportunity to tell the stories of our little piece of American history."

Follow reporter Lucas High on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Lucas.

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