A chapel reborn

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Former downtown church site to become ‘learning center’ for Reconstruction Beaufort

By Mindy Lucas

A half-acre piece of property in a residential section of downtown Beaufort could soon become the home of the city’s newest history and interpretive center.

Planners for the Second Founding of America: Reconstruction Beaufort received approval from the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals on Monday, March 22, to turn an empty building at 913 West Street in the Old Commons neighborhood into a “learning center.”

The 3,100 square-foot building was formerly the home of Beaufort Bible Chapel, which closed earlier in the year after its membership began to dwindle, said Reconstruction Beaufort’s founder, former Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling.

Keyserling’s brother, Paul, plans to purchase the property and the grassy lot next door, and will lease the property back to the organization. The center will in turn work with the National Park Service’s Reconstruction Era National Historical Park and its network of sites, Keyserling said.

In 2017, the Keyserlings donated the former Beaufort firehouse on the corner of Scott and Craven streets to the park service to use as the new park’s visitor center and headquarters.

In addition to changing the building to a learning center, planners at Monday’s meeting were asking for a variance to allow the building to continue operating at its current size. The Beaufort Code does not allow for public or “civic facilities” within the city to exceed more than 2,500 square feet without one.

Zoning Board members placed several conditions on the applicant’s plans before unanimously approving it. Among those, the more than 50-year-old building must retain its current size or not be altered to make it any larger. The open grassy lot next to the building is also to be kept as it is.

In the weeks leading up to the zoning board’s decision, Billy Keyserling had reached out to members of the neighborhood association and other residents in the area with details of the group’s plan in an effort to be transparent, he said.

The Keyserlings are considering putting a conservation easement on the property. Photo by Mindy Lucas.

Both the building and the open space next to it would not be altered and the open space would be used as a passive park with interpretative signs for visitors wanting to learn more about Reconstruction and the role Beaufort played during this era in history, he told residents.

The center would offer programs and activities to small school groups.

“Our primary interest in this is having a park and a place for training smaller groups of students in video, writing, art and storytelling,” he said.

The organization would eventually like to locate and move a small, 600-square-foot Freedman’s Cottage to the site to serve as part of the site’s interpretative work.

While the initiative will not formally be part of the National Park until it is sustainable, Park Service staff will assist with its programs and be provided additional work space at the site since they have outgrown the firehouse location, Keyserling said.

Some neighbors at Monday night’s meeting and in a previous Zoom meeting on the project expressed concerns over noise and additional traffic in the neighborhood.

The proposal initially caused a “great deal of anxiety” from many who live in the neighborhood a few blocks west of the University of South Carolina Beaufort “about the volume of use more than anything,” said Zoning Board chairman Josh Gibson who also lives in Old Commons.

“The church as it is right now is a very low impact, part of a very small residential community, only three blocks wide,” Gibson said.

Keyserling said he didn’t anticipate the center being much of a “traffic generator” adding that events that might attract large crowds, such as a history lecture, would be rare.

The center would typically be used by smaller groups of visitors or students with most of its activities taking place indoors, he went on to say. The site also has built-in or ample off-street parking to handle this traffic, he said.

“It is my personal view, and that of all in our organization, that the intended changes will not have an adverse impact,” he said.

In addition, the Keyserlings are considering putting a conservation easement on the property that would protect it from future development, he said.

Residents who live on either side of the property in question voiced their concerns with the project at the meeting held online Monday night with many saying their concerns had been addressed.

“While I understand that not everything can be ironclad in the proposal regarding tour buses, thus far, I’m comfortable with the proposal,” said Kim Poovey, whose property is behind the former church’s education building.

Noise was one of Poovey’s primary concerns. She said while she initially wanted to see small cottage homes on the site mirroring those in the neighborhood, her biggest concern now was keeping the neighborhood safe and quiet.

“I think (the proposed plan) is going to keep our neighborhood safe, and I feel strongly that the city would support our neighborhood if concerns did arise,” she said.

Justin and Julie Seibold who live directly across from the building on West Street also expressed approval of the plans for a learning center devoted to Reconstruction.

“So far we feel pretty OK with what we’re hearing,” Justin Seibold said. “Our biggest concern would be loud speaker noise.”

“But the project overall sounds interesting,” Julie Seibold said. “It sounds like something I would want to be involved with helping.”

Mindy Lucas is the Beaufort reporter for The Island News and is a staff writer for Lowcountry Weekly. She can be reached at mindy.islandnews@gmail.com.