Before I get down to business, I want to thank the Mizpah Presbyterian Church facebook page for allowing me to use their pictures and for posting some of the history of the church.
Mizpah Presbyterian church was organized by Reverand William A. Campbell in 1885 at Brook Schoolhouse in Henrico County. One of the senior charter members, Patty Storrs, had the honor of naming the church. Mizpah is mentioned several times in the Bible as a place in Gilead. Generally, the word is thought of to mean “look out” or “watchtower.” Their first building was on Henrico Turnpike on property given to the church by James G. Tinsley. Unfortunately, this original building burnt in 1891 causing them to relocate to a new building in Highland Park at Third Avenue and Juniper Street in 1893. It wasn’t until 1926 that Mizpah Presbyterian Church made its way to Brookland Park Boulevard.
Mizpah Presbyterian Church member, Wallace Bryan Stockton, was in the application for the Highland Park Plaza National Register of Historic Places about life during the 1920’s as saying:
“Highland Park became neat, with mixed architecture. The citizens were of mixed economic strata, from one end of the spectrum to the other,- but basically they and their community were modest. . . board fences abounded. There were chicken lots in back yards and barns for horses and cows. There were chicken thieves, too, and Gypsies from the C&O tracks. The community abounded with vacant lots for ball games and lots of ice houses for boys on hot summer days. . . Scouting received strong emphasis in Highland Park. Each of the three protestant churches had active troops at various times. . . When the patrols were not fighting each other there was unity in a rock battle with Barton Heights scouts down in the ravine.”
The first service at 1222 E. Brookland Park Boulevard (the 1960 directory and beyond lists the address as 1224 E. Brookland Park Boulevard) was held on Easter Day 1926. The windows of the building were “exceedingly striking and impressive in its combination of richness of color and design.” In 1935, Mizpah hosted its 50th Anniversary with over 250 guests consisting of current members, former members, and friends of the church. The church had grown from its original ~20 members to 462 members with 296 enrolled in Sunday School.
On June 6, 1947 the church hosted a service where they burnt the mortgage to celebrate the church becoming debt free. It was two days after this ceremony that they officially dedicated the church.
Mizpah Presbyterian had a very active congregation. Every week, they held Sunday School classes for youth and adults. The Women of the Church grew into six groups and their goal was for all women to be in a Bible study, be involved with the mission work at Southern Presbyterian Church, have a spirit of sacrificial giving, and be involved in meeting the needs of others. The Men of Mizpah would meet monthly to foster fellowship among the congregation. The Young People’s Organization planned programming such as discussion groups and gatherings. Mizpah Church had senior and junior choirs with a paid leader in addition to a paid organist.
Following World War II and the construction of interstate 95, suburban sprawl began in Richmond. In 1942, most residents of Highland Park signed a pact sponsored by the Highland Park Citizens Association to not be the first to sell their home to a black buyer. Despite the heavy fear of white residents, Highland Park’s racial demographics did not start to shift until the mid-1960’s. In 1960, there were 474 members at Mizpah Presbyterian and 361 enrolled in Sunday School. By 1970, 70% of residents in Highland Park were black and by the late 1970’s very few white residents were left.
While some churches intentionally moved out of the Highland Park area with the changing demographics, Mizpah Presbyterian saw a decline in their membership as residents moved out of the area causing them to go out of business. In 1974, Mizpah merged with Ginter Park Presbyterian Church. The city directories still list the property as Mizpah Presbyterian in 1975; however by 1980, the property has changed hands to become Bethlehem Community Center.
Bethlehem Community Center was founded in 1937 in Fulton Bottom; however, in 1975 they relocated to Highland Park. BCC’s mission was to provide services to at-risk families to improve their quality of life. In 1995, Wilson Inn Residence and Bethlehem Community Center merged to form Bethlehem Wilson Communities. In 1998, BWC served 120 pre-school children, 70 school-aged children, 53 youth involved in after school activities, 40 seniors in activities, 1,200 families provided with food, and 47 families provided with emergency fuel assistance.
There are recent articles referring to the now-vacant property as Nehemiah House Community Center; however, I can not find information on that organization or how the property was used during their tenure. In March 2015, the property was acquired by an LLC that is part of Community Preservation and Development Corporation (CPDC). According to Richmond Property Search records, Nehemiah Ventures LLC acquired 1224, 1226, and 1228 E Brookland Park Boulevard on the same date. CPCD is a non-profit real estate developer committed to providing affordable housing. In addition to the former Mizpah Presbyterian Church, CPCD renovated the Highland Park Public School turned Brookland Park Plaza to be the Highland Park Senior Apartments. During Affordable Housing Awareness Week in April 2015, CPCD announced their acquisition of the property. CPCD’s plan for the former Mizpah Presbyterian church is to “replace the building with a newly-constructed, mixed-use community-serving project.” In the CPCD Q4 2015 strategic plan update, they indicated the new construction of Nehemiah will be their first community development project in Richmond and they are working to acquire a neighboring property to expand the building to the intersection’s corner.
Their documentation does not provide specifics about the property they want to acquire; however, based on their current property ownership footprint, we can make an educated guess. Currently they own 1224, 1226, and 1228 which are outlined in the picture above by a red box. If they want the new building to extend to the intersection, we can assume that means they are looking at one or more of the properties on Meadowbridge. In January 2016, Council Woman Ellen Robertson hosted a Community Workshop to give residents input on what they wanted to see in the former church building. In CPDC’s Q2 2016 update, they cited they have hosted three community design meetings and they will include a final design of the property in their tax credit submission in March 2017. The group’s Q1 2017 strategic plan update indicates they issued a request for proposal (RFP) for design services and the target date for tax credit application is spring 2018.
So it seems the Mizpah Presbyterian Church building is not long for this world with plans of a new building for community space developing. With this project impacting a large chunk of Brookland Park Boulevard near Six-Points, hopefully we will get to see some final designs sooner rather than later. Until then, Mizpah will remain vacant and a beautiful crumbling reminder of the days of yesteryear.