Crammed between an aging bus station, a firehouse and the Salvation Army, the Ridge Street storefront of the former Mount Zion Baptist Church is easy to miss despite its rising spire and a big for-sale sign.
The Charlottesville church, built in 1884 by a congregation of African Americans and for the last 17 years home to the Music Resource Center, is on the market.
Although the youth music center eventually will leave the building, it’s not going anywhere. It just needs a bigger home.
“I love this space. It’s absolutely beautiful and a great piece of history, but we just need more room,” said Alice K. Fox, the center’s executive director. “We have more participants than space and there’s quite a bit of money that needs to go into fixing up and maintaining an historic building. We’ve just outgrown it.”
The Music Resource Center first opened in 1995 in a rehearsal space above the nightclub Trax, which for decades served as a venue for performers from The Ramones and Marilyn Manson to John Mayer and Nickelback.
From lessons and performing to writing and recording and even internships at local venues, the center has helped instill in area youth a sense of accomplishment, life skills and the love of boogie.
The center moved into the church in 2004 with financial help from the Dave Matthews Band, after the church congregation outgrew the historic building. With several recording studios, practice spaces and the former sanctuary as a performance venue, the church has served the center well but just isn’t large enough anymore to accommodate the center’s programs.
When the Greyhound Bus terminal behind the center went up for sale, MRC officials decided they would follow suit.
“We feel like it’s the right time to put the building on the market,” Fox said. “Our hope is that the sale will enable us to build an endowment to some degree and that we’ll be able to find a new facility.”
The church is listed for about $1.8 million, given its prime location near new hotels, the University of Virginia-dominated West Main Street corridor and the Downtown Mall.
Being adjacent to the bus station, which is not a historic building and can be demolished for redevelopment, has created some buzz.
“A lot of the interest we have been involved in with the church is in respect to the Greyhound station,” said John Pritzlaff, who along with Jenny Stoner represents the property for Cushman & Wakefield — Thalhimer. “It’s kind of like other properties in the city where [developers] have embraced an existing building and utilized it in redevelopment of their property, especially an historic building.”
The former church isn’t just historic because of it age, it’s also on the National Historical Register.
The building itself incorporates features of several architectural styles, notably Italianate and classical revival. It’s also an important part of history for the Charlottesville’s African American community, according to the Historic Register’s nomination affidavit.
“The church reflects the determination of Blacks to participate in mainstream society, but in a manner compatible with their own needs and aspirations,” the document declares.
The affidavit notes that most activities and organizations in Charlottesville and throughout the South were controlled by white society. Churches, including the Ridge Street edifice, provided a place that was specifically for Blacks.
“Mount Zion Baptist Church served as a house of worship, a social center, a theater, and the forum and general meeting house for the black community,” the affidavit states. “Today it serves as a reminder of those early years of freedom and self-assertion.”
The former sanctuary is named the LeRoi Moore Performance Hall, after the late Dave Matthews Band saxophonist.
It features a “two-tiered, semicircular choir loft and pulpit centered on the west wall and a gallery that wraps around the east, north, and south walls,” according to the affidavit. “The narrow oak floors are believed to be original. The tops of the 10 windows that light the room are hidden by the gallery.”
On the rear wall of the loft is the shell of a pipe organ. The ceiling is covered with acoustical panels and the bases of the roof’s “modified scissor trusses with support purloins” are exposed. So are the reinforcing steel rods installed in 1986 when the roof began to sag and bow the walls.
According to the historical document, between 1905 and 1917, the basement was completed, the steeple built, stained glass windows added and pipe organ installed. The pulpit and choir stand were changed to add a baptismal pool in the 1920s.
A two-story addition was built on the southwest corner and radiators were added to the sanctuary when steam heat was introduced around 1929. In the 1940s, another two-story addition was built on the northwest corner to accommodate a pastor’s study and kitchen.
The church was central to the nearby Vinegar Hill community, which was a hub of residential, social and commercial life for the Black community. Urban renewal in the 1960s tore down almost the entire neighborhood.
“It’s a complicated and historic structure for sure, and it’s a gorgeous building,” Stoner said. “The beautiful old sanctuary lends itself to being a performance venue or a restaurant or something similar.”
“It would be a great office space for a small firm that sees the building as a statement,” Pritzlaff said. “It lends itself to retail, offices and entertainment. There’s a huge opportunity there.”
For the Music Resource Center, the sale price could help the organization relocate and redevelop a space near downtown to continue its musical mission.
“We’d love to find a larger space not too far away because a lot of our kids walk over here from Buford Middle School,” Fox said. “In a lot of ways, we provide a bit of freedom in that kids can come over, play music, take lessons, hang with their friends, go downtown and get something to eat and come back. We’d like to continue that.”
Fox said finding the right spot will not be easy.
“We know it’s going to be tough and that’s why we thought we’d put the for-sale sign out in front, to get things going,” she said. “We’ve had wonderful support from the community for 25 years, and I hope we’ll continue to have that as we move toward our next step.”