CHEYENNE, Wyo. - When Howard Rodack bought the old Second Baptist Church building, he realized it would take plenty of work to save it from the wrecking ball.
The vaulted roof had failed and was sinking in. Masonry walls bulged and bowed. And it had been on the market for about two years.
A structural engineer said he would have to take steps to condemn the building unless Rodack took immediate action to rescue it.
And that's what Rodack did.
"I thought it should be saved," said Rodack, president of H.R.R. Development Inc., a real estate development company here, and a history enthusiast. "It was worth the risk."
Rodack said the structure was historically significant to Cheyenne. The building was once home to the Second Baptist Church, which has been at its 24th Street and Snyder Avenue location since the late 1980s.
Church built in 1884
The congregation built the structure in 1884, he said. It is the oldest surviving organized church structure from the Cheyenne black community, based on his research and interviews, and just might be the oldest of its type in Wyoming, he said.
No one he has talked with knows of any such surviving buildings in Wyoming that are older, he said.
The Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Cheyenne has been in existence longer, but its original building was torn down several years ago.
Rodack started his painstaking efforts in October to save the building.
The hard work was a success. A new roof has been put up. Once unsteady, walls were reinforced with a complex system of rebar and mortar poured into spaces inside the cinderblocks.
"The building is sound," Rodack said as he looked around the spacious main floor. "It can last for another 100 years."
"Saving it is important to Cheyenne's history," Rodack said, adding that he was going to develop it for use as professional space.
Rodack said there's a place for such responsible development.
"There's no reason why we can't save a beautiful building and have it be economically feasible," he added. "It's ready for a tenant."
Rodack said he didn't want to do too much more work on the inside until he found a tenant. That's because he wanted the tenant to have a say in determining what was needed for the inside.
The building will have a new life as a functioning part of downtown, he said.
Rodack will re-stucco the outside walls and replace some windows. He said those efforts would help bring back the building's original design.
Some windows boarded over for years will be restored to original use, which will bathe the structure in light.
Rodack found a photo on the wall that shows how the church looked long ago. The photo shows 22 men standing outside a building that has "Second Baptist Church" above the door.
The photo likely was taken in the 1920s, said Mary Tyler, a longtime church member.
Typewritten information on the back of the photo says the church was built in 1884. It adds there was a fire in 1940 and a second floor was added.
Rodack said he was puzzled by the photograph at first because the building in the picture was not as tall as the one today.
But he learned from research and interviews with some church members that the building initially had been constructed partly below ground.
That changed in the 1940s when a minister launched a campaign to "get out of the basement in 1949," Tyler said, based on the history of the church. Members raised money to build the above-ground addition that is there today.
Rodack has a copy of the original warranty deed for the church that says the congregation paid $400 for the land in 1884.
His records show church members took out three mortgages on the property in 1884: two for $400 and another for $100, he said. He said this was done to get money to build the church.
Efforts to make the building sound haven't been easy.
First, the walls were stabilized using timbers. "We had cables strung all the way through on both sides," Rodack said, pointing to holes in the walls from which four sets of steel cables once spanned.
Tightening the cables helped bring the walls to an upright position.
They also dismantled the old roof manually.
Rodack said it likely would have been easier to just tear down the building and start over. But he realized its importance in the history of Cheyenne.
He said he believed from his research that the basement is the original one from 1884. Its walls are 18 inches thick.
Tyler said she didn't know for sure. Church history says the original brick building was condemned in 1922 and found to be unsafe, she said. Another building was started on the original site, she added.
Even if the oldest part of the building dates from 1922, it still is likely the oldest surviving black church structure in Cheyenne and possibly Wyoming, Rodack said.
Tyler said she was pleased with his efforts to save the building.
"It would have been sad if they had destroyed the building," she said. "It does have a lot of fond memories for a lot of people."
C.J. Brown of Cheyenne has preached in the building before, and he has researched church buildings.
He said the preservation sent a positive message, noting that in Wyoming's history only about 3 percent of the population has been black.
But he added their contributions had been significant, even if they sometimes went unnoticed historically. They were buffalo soldiers, cowboys, people who worked in hotels and were part of every aspect of Wyoming, he said.
"This is a way of showing the contribution of the black community," Brown said.
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