{ business directory }

FORT SMITH CHURCH ON HISTORIC REGISTER

BY SCOTT SMITH // Times REcord

One Fort Smith church is gaining attention across the nation for its appearance and historical significance. First Evangelical Lutheran Church has been named to the National Register of Historic Places, which is a recognition that is worthy, said Mark Christ, a spokesperson for the Arkansas Historical Preservation Program. Located at 1115 N. D St., the church was named to the register based on its architecture, he said.

"The church is recognized as a great example of Gothic-revival architecture," Christ said. "It's a textbook example of what is probably the most recognized form of Ecclesia architecture.

"The primary benefit of the National Register listing is honorific," he added. "It recognizes this church and other properties for their importance in telling the story of Fort Smith and Lutheranism."

Virginia Shaver, chairwoman for the church's Preservation Committee, called the recognition "a prestigious thing" that "says a lot" of the structure and architecture of the church, which was built in 1904.

"The church has Gothic architecture, and the windows are outstanding," she said. "The stone is local — it's from a stone quarry that is or was in Eureka Springs — and the architects were local.

"The plans for the church were drawn by Blakely and Hoffman Architects, who as far as I know, were from Fort Smith," Shaver added. "The general contractor that handled the construction was Hielmann Construction Co. of Joplin, Mo. Everything was from here or was from pretty close, and that carries some weight in the sentimentality of it."

Some of Shaver's favorite stories about the church's history involve early settlers and the creation of the church. Settlers from Saxony, Germany, came up from New Orleans and settled in the Long Prairie community, which was located about 12 miles south of Fort Smith and is now known as the Hartford and Hackett areas, Shaver said.

"The carpetbaggers came in and destroyed their crops and killed people, so those settlers decided they would move to Fort Smith, because the Army post was here and they would have the protection of the Army," Shaver said.

"And the thing about the Lutheran Church is, they always wanted to make sure their children were educated," she added. "They would build a school before they would build a church in a community. Education has always been important to Lutherans."

In Fort Smith, the settlers created a school in someone's home at 15 First St., which is where part of the Garrison Avenue bridge is now located, Shaver said. Those settlers then built their first church nearby before it was moved to its current location, she said.

"Our present church was built very shortly after Immaculate Conception was built," Shaver said. "Our church was built in 1904, which makes it one of the earliest churches, and our school, as far as I've seen, was here even before the Catholic school."

Now led by pastor John Merrill, First Evangelical Lutheran Church draws an average of 150 members to its weekly service on Sunday, she said.

"I think the National Register recognition is a good thing," Shaver said.

In cases involving nonprofits owning properties, the National Register recognition can make some property owners eligible for grants, Christ said. These grants are used for restoration work and similar upgrades, he said.

Todd Perry and other members of the Fort Smith Black Historical League are making efforts to acquire grant funding for Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, which is located at 723 N. Eighth St. and is already listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The church, whose history dates back to 1864, is one of "numerous important" African-American landmarks and once was the home church of popular jazz musician Alfonso Trent, among many other individuals, he said.

"I'm trying to get it and all of the African-American landmarks in Fort Smith recognized on the National Registry," Perry said. "I've been working with people in Washington.

"And this is something that must be done," he added. "We, in Fort Smith, have all of these structures that are still standing, and we want people to pull together to get this done. It doesn't have to be only African-American people. We want everyone involved, because if we don't get involved and restore our legacy, then other people will never know that legacy."

Christ said he feels encouraged that so many Fort Smith residents have worked and continue to work on getting local buildings named to the register. Those who seek nominations can visit www.arkansaspreservation.com and follow the National Register Program link.

"We ask them to send in an application packet that includes the history, photographs and any changes that have been made," Christ said. "We then have a group of folks within the office to evaluate the nomination, and there are four basic criteria —  a connection with a historic theme, association with a historical figure, architecture and archaeology."

First Evangelical Lutheran Church was found eligible for nomination based on its Gothic-style architecture, and a governor-appointed panel from the Arkansas Review Board made the formal nomination, he said. Formal nominations that pass are then sent to National Park Service representatives, who do the formal register listing for the building/property, Christ said.

On average, it takes six to nine months for a property to be evaluated and approved, he said.

"If a property isn't found eligible by our staff, it generally stops there," Christ said. "That usually happens because of alterations that were done to the property or a property has been moved that makes it not eligible."

The only cost associated with the National Registry is an option to purchase a plaque that commemorates the achievement, he said. Shaver said she and other First Evangelical Lutheran Church committee members are in the process of purchasing a sign.

"We're trying to decide which plaque to get," she said. "We're hoping that this recognition brings more attention to our church, and that it lets people know that we are here and we've been her for a long time."

Christ predicted that the registry recognition will bring more focus to First Evangelical Lutheran Church.

"The National Register is a tangible link to American history," he said. "Every property listed tells part of the story of its town, its state and the U.S. It's great to have this mechanism that recognizes places where people can touch and interact with history."