MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A historic preservation organization on Wednesday joined the push to raise money for the rehabilitation of a temple in downtown Memphis known for its role in the sanitation workers’ strike in 1968.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation has named Clayborn Temple to its National Treasures portfolio.
The designation means the privately-funded trust will help groups raise money for the rehabilitation of the old church and develop re-use plans for the building.
Other National Treasure locations include the Houston Astrodome and Nashville’s Music Row.
“These are places of national significance, where usually, they’re threatened,” said David Brown, the trust’s chief preservation officer. “In some cases, it’s because they haven’t been used for a number of years. … Sometimes they’re threatened simply because of development that’s happening in the area.”
The trust also accepted the temple into the National Fund for Sacred Places, making it eligible for a grant of up to $250,000.
Clayborn Temple is undergoing renovation. It was the home base for the sanitation workers strike that brought civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King. Jr. to the city nearly 50 years ago.
It was the starting point for the March 28, 1968, march led by King, a rally that turned violent when police and protesters clashed on Beale Street.
After King was assassinated in Memphis a week later, and after the strike ended with the workers securing a pay raise, the church’s influence waned. It fell into disrepair and became an empty landmark overshadowed by the modern FedEx Forum sports arena across the street.
The temple’s cornerstone was laid in 1891, and it was dedicated in 1893 by the Second Presbyterian Church.
Built in the Romanesque Revival style, it boasted a limestone exterior, hardwood floors, curved pews, a majestic organ, and a 110-foot tower topped with a 120-foot spire. The spire and pews are long gone, but the tower, organ and parts of the original floor remain.
Last year, a group called Clayborn Reborn announced it was renovating the church, which had been closed for years. The effort was boosted when the National Park Service announced a $400,000 grant for renovations.
The goal is to fix up the church for meetings, religious ceremonies, community events and other gatherings.
Rob Thompson, director of the Clayborn Reborn project, has estimated that $10 million must be raised to pay for renovations.