Clarence Nicholas, 90, stood outside a small, stucco building in downtown Palo Alto last Saturday afternoon, his hands clutching a piece of paper on which he'd written the lyrics to "Because He Lives."
It was his late wife's favorite hymn. They married in the stucco church on Ramona Street in 1957, he said.
"It was very sunny and very warm, just identical like it is today," he said, his voice gravelly but melodious. "We were so happy. ... We had a wonderful afternoon here."
For Nicholas and about three dozen other members of the oldest black congregation in Palo Alto, University A.M.E. Zion Church, Saturday was a homecoming of sorts. Their original church at 819 Ramona, built in 1925, had faced near-certain demolition for decades. But aided by the City of Palo Alto and real-estate developer Menlo Equities, the dilapidated building was recently restored as part of a larger office-and-housing project on the corner of Ramona and Homer Avenue. The church itself will become office space.
Members of the congregation got their first peek inside the historic building on Saturday. Many had never seen the old church -- the congregation had moved in 1965 to a new facility on Middlefield Road and sold its original home to the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.
But a handful of old-time members returned. Among them was Ruth Anne Gray, the granddaughter of co-founder Isaac M. Hinson. In the late 1980s, she led the fight to save the church from demolition after it had fallen into disrepair and the medical center planned to use the land for expansion.
She applied to the National Register of Historic Place in 1996 to secure the church's historical significance on the register. Among its notable features, she wrote, was the story of how the young, black church had benefited from the help of the wider Palo Alto community during the 1930s. Despite ongoing racial segregation nationally, the church received donations from whites and Asians alike who rallied to keep the building from foreclosure.
In 1935, half of the church's $3,500 debt was covered; by 1939, the mortgage was paid off, according to news articles at the time.
On Saturday, a bell tower and triangular stained-glass window, pointing heavenward, rose above Gray.
"It was in pretty bad shape until Menlo Equities started working on it in 2007," she said. "I'm absolutely delighted it has been restored. ... This is the result after so many years."
She said she'd oohed and ahhed over the hardwood floor, which had been restored to the state she'd remembered, along with the stained-glass windows, freshly painted stucco walls and wood trim. Only the addition of a bathroom and wheelchair lift and the closing of a tiny mezzanine were new.
The rehabilitation had its challenges, according to staff with Menlo Equities of Palo Alto and construction firm Webcor Builders, whose work on the mixed-use project also included the restoration of the historic French Laundry building on Homer.
The church had to be jacked up onto stilts while a basement and underground garage were constructed. Then the church had to be rebuilt to add structural integrity. Broken window panes were replaced with new glass made to match the original panes, according to a Menlo Equities spokeswoman.
Those difficulties fell to the wayside Saturday as congregation members held an hour-and-a-half-long worship service in the restored church. Members of the city's Historic Resources Board and city Historic-Preservation Planner Dennis Backlund attended the event.
The simple building deserved the efforts made to save it, Backlund said. Its history represented the core values of the city: freedom, equality and the unity of all people into a single community.
"The restoration of this building is kind of a mirror image of a communal effort by which it was built and by which it was maintained during difficult times," he said. "We did our part to make sure the historical outcome really represented its history. We feel, looking at it, that it really does, and so meticulously, too."
Doris Richmond, a slight woman whose late husband also fought to save the church, said she was grateful to see the old building reflecting its former glory. She recalled the years when she would stop by on Saturdays to bank the pot-bellied stove, so the building would be warm enough for Sunday school the next morning.
She said she's been touched by the building's transformation and the good memories it's brought back.
"Sometimes," she said, "I just sit on the steps and cry."