Restoration of Pickett Chapel moves forward

Sinclaire Sparkman • Updated Apr 20, 2017 at 11:00 AM

The historic chapel on Market Street stands as a staple of the intersection of black and white culture in Lebanon, and the work of the Wilson County Black History Committee continues to restore one of Lebanon’s oldest brick buildings with new doors soon to be installed. 

The Black History Committee bought Pickett Chapel in 2007, and the group has made steps toward its restoration since that time. 

“I don’t know if it was about to fall down in 2007, but it was in pretty bad shape,” said Phillip Hodge, local archaeologist and committee member. “The first tasks that the Wilson County Black History Committee took on were to stabilize the structure so that it would be safe to enter.”

In 2008, the committee had the building assessed by a professional architect and consulted with the Tennessee Historical Commission to draft up a document to guide the restoration. 

As its original use, Pickett Chapel housed services for the Methodist congregation in Lebanon when it was built in 1827. It was then called Seay’s Chapel. The people who built the church were enslaved African Americans, many of whom likely attended services at the church with the white congregation. 

The white congregation outgrew the building in 1856, and after the Civil War, freed African Americans purchased Pickett Chapel for $1,500.  

The black congregation outgrew the building in 1973, and held their last service there March 11 of that year. The congregation is now known as the Pickett Rucker United Methodist Church. 

The building was then purchased by a local theater group and used to house plays for a number of years before it fell into disrepair. When the building was purchased in 2007, it was slated for demolition. People who had history in the building pooled their money and resources, just as the congregation had after the Civil War, and purchased the building to begin restoration efforts.

The building is now coming up on its 200th anniversary. 

“One of the reasons it’s still here is because it’s made of brick,” Hodge said. “The 1800s is a century where everything was made of wood. Buildings burned all the time. It’s one of the few brick buildings of that time period. They’re not common until after the Civil War.”

With the long history and different uses of the building, the Black History Committee was met with the choice of what time period to restore the building. The group settled on the early 1900s. The long-term goal of the project is to set up a museum inside, portraying the history of the congregations and include an exhibit on the theater group, as well.  

“Right now, it’s an old building needing much repair,” said Jesse McLevain, a member of the committee. “The building is a vehicle through which the stories can be told of things that occurred that were related to that building. The restoration of the chapel and development of a state-of-the-art museum, in spite of the fact that it won’t be large to start with, offers quite a bit of opportunity to enrich the education in the county.”  

All of the work at Pickett Chapel is made possible through volunteer work and donations.

Pickett Chapel has been on the National Register of Historic Places for a number of years, and as such, certain requirements must be met regarding the restoration. Anything inside the building may be changed at will in order to set up the museum. It is the outside of the building that is required to retain the historically accurate look, which is the mission of the Black History Committee in the restoration project.

So far, the restoration work has focused on repairing the structural integrity of the building. In 2010, a portion of the east wall was rebuilt, funded by a grant from the Tennessee Historical Commission. Another grant from the THC funded the replacement of the roof and repairs to the cupola and cornice in 2013.

“As a result of those grants they sign a preservation covenant on the property,” said Louis Jackson, historic preservation specialist with the THC. “They just tell me what it is they’re proposing to do and if it’s going to be something structural they will need architectural drawings and specifications, they send them to me and I either meet them on site or review the work depending on what it is.”

The most recent work completed was the drainage project in 2014, which helped to keep water away from the building with the installation of a French drain, as well as gutters from the early 1900s period. 

“One of the things that really damaged the building was all the water coming off the roof,” Hodge said. “It was just hitting the ground and undercutting the foundation.”

During the installation of the French drain, bricks were found that may be used during the upcoming project, replacing the doors and restoring the front archway to historically accuracy.

“We were fortunate enough to be awarded grants from the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee and from State Farm that will be directed toward the doors,” Hodge said. 

State Farm granted the project $2,500 and the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee granted $5,242. With a total of $7,742, the Black History Committee should be able to move forward with the replacement of the doors in the next few months. 

“There’s a lot of work that we have done on the building, but it’s not flashy work,” Hodge said. “It’s the necessary behind the scenes stuff. We’re really just now in 2017 at the point where we can start working on the aesthetic parts of the building.” 

The Black History Committee will hold it’s sixth annual Heritage Peace Garden Celebration on May 20 at 11 a.m. on chapel grounds. The event will honor Frank Palmer, Stella Palmer, Finley Thompson and Mandy Thompson-McCathern for their contributions to the community. Hodge will also discuss the archaeological digs on the grounds. The event is free and open to the public and refreshments will be served. 

To contact the Wilson County Black History Committee, call 615-444-9487.


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