Built in 1892 in downtown Grand Junction, Handy Chapel is affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church but is legally owned by the black citizens of the city. In more than 120 years of existence, the chapel has served the community primarily as a church but also as an important social center and a shelter for visitors and those in need. With the help of Colorado Preservation and other preservation-minded nonprofits, in the early 2010s the congregation successfully restored the chapel and adjacent chapel house, which had deteriorated significantly over the previous decades.
Just after the Ute Indians were forced out of western Colorado in September 1881, the Grand Junction Town Company formed to promote development at the confluence of the Colorado (then known as the Grand) and Gunnison Rivers. As part of its plan for the new town, the company donated lots for congregations to build churches on the northeast corner of each intersection along White Avenue from Third Street to Seventh Street.
The black community in Grand Junction initially attended the First Methodist Church, but soon it began to push for a church of its own. This was a period when strict racial segregation was starting to take hold in other parts of the country (especially the South), but there is no evidence that the black community was forced out of the First Methodist Church. Instead, Grand Junction’s black residents wanted to have a building that could serve as a religious and social center for their community.
The town’s leaders, all members of the First Methodist Church, quickly acted to extend the line of churches along White Avenue by giving the northeast corner of White Avenue and Second Street to the black community to build a church. It is noteworthy that the deed, sold in 1883 for a token $1 payment, was made out to the black citizens of Grand Junction, not to any particular congregation or church organization.
It took nine years for Grand Junction’s black community to raise the $962.50 necessary to construct a church building on the site. The building, a simple one-story brick structure with a two-story bell tower on a stone foundation, was completed in 1892. It was originally called Wright Chapel after its first pastor, Silas Wright, and was affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.
By 1900, for unknown reasons, Wright Chapel had been renamed Handy Chapel. It had also received an eastern addition with a multipurpose room and a one-room parsonage intended for visiting pastors.
Handy Chapel was built as a church, but it has a long history of serving the community in a variety of functions. When Grand Junction faced a classroom shortage in the opening years of the twentieth century, for example, Handy Chapel provided additional space for classes.
Because Handy Chapel was one of the few black institutions in the city, it also provided shelter to black visitors, homeless people, and anyone else in need of a place to stay. In the 1910s or 1920s the congregation built a small wood-frame chapel house next to the church to serve these visitors. Those who stayed there often paid their way by performing maintenance and other work around the chapel.
In the late 1970s and 1980s the congregation became entangled in a dispute with the AME Church that ended up reinforcing Handy Chapel’s unique role in Grand Junction’s black community. The congregation had long been associated with the AME Church and had occasionally paid for traveling AME ministers to preach at the chapel. Problems with this arrangement arose in the late 1970s, when the Rocky Mountain Conference of the AME Church tried to sell the chapel. The congregation filed suit, claiming that the Rocky Mountain Conference could not sell the chapel because it did not own the building or the lot, whose original deed to the black citizens of Grand Junction had never been sold or transferred.
In April 1981, District Judge James J. Carter sided with the congregation and dismissed the Rocky Mountain Conference’s claims to ownership. Judge Carter ruled that the original deed still applied and that Handy Chapel needed a trust committee of black citizens to ensure that the chapel was maintained for the charitable and religious use of the city’s black residents.
Judge Carter’s ruling codified Handy Chapel’s significance within Grand Junction’s black community, and in 1994 the chapel was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The shrinking congregation struggled financially, however, and by the early 2000s it could no longer maintain the century-old chapel and adjacent chapel house. The roof of the chapel house collapsed, and the floor of the chapel’s parsonage failed.
In 2011 Colorado Preservation listed the chapel as one of the state’s most endangered places to help stimulate restoration efforts. That May, volunteers from HistoriCorps replaced the chapel house’s roof, while Colorado Preservation staff applied for grants to fund the chapel’s rehabilitation. In 2012, with seed money from the El Pomar Foundation, former state legislator Tillie Bishop, and retired banker Herb Bacon, Handy Chapel was able to secure more than $200,000 in grants from the State Historical Fund and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Restoration of the chapel started that fall and was completed in 2013, providing the building with better accessibility, new meeting space in the former parsonage, and a variety of other improvements.