Historic photo of Athens’ First Christian Church, which is also now home to the Southeast Ohio History Center. (

Southeast Ohio History Center to Open Doors May 2

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April 15, 1917, Athens’ First Christian Church opened its doors. Exactly 100 years later, another institution, the Southeast Ohio History Center (SOHC), celebrated its grand opening on exactly the same day in that very historic building. Due to on-going construction, the grand opening served as a way to acquaint the public with the recently renovated space, which will officially open it’s doors on May 2.

“It was in this region – in Marietta and in Athens – that Ohio really began,” said SOHC executive director Tom O’Grady in an interview late last month.

During his interview, O’Grady took WOUB outside the nearly entirely finished new home for the SOHC. He pointed to the intricate brick work outside the building, and the gorgeous little crests on the corbels embedded in the architecture of the building.

“Used to be, 100 years ago, that every building that had level of detail, that most buildings had corbeling,” he said. “It’s just not done anymore.”

O’Grady said that the restoration and repurposing of the church is just the first in a series of such historical restoration projects that the SOHC hopes to assist with in some manner.

“We hadn’t ever done this kind of thing before,” he said. “We want to set an example for the community and for the region that old buildings can be repurposed and continue to serve our communities for another generation – or more. If a small non-profit can do it, then certainly local governments, large institutions, and corporations can do it. The best buildings we have we inherited from previous generations. Are we building things today that we will someday fight to save when they are old? Or will they even get old?”

O’Grady said that many historical and heritage organizations are very small. Although the SOHC isn’t necessarily large, it’s certainly bigger than some other outfits whose mission resembles that of SOHC – and he hopes that its size might allow for the SOHC to loan out pieces of its collection to smaller outfits as needed, as well as assist in archiving, designing exhibits, and speaking out for heritage preservation all over the state.

An image of the crew working on the original First Christian Church in Athens, which opened its doors on April 15, 1817. (
An image of the crew working on the original First Christian Church in Athens, which opened its doors on April 15, 1817. (

“What we want to do is create a relationship with all of our neighboring historical societies and heritage groups – and build kind of an army that will be a stronger voice for heritage preservation in our region,” said O’Grady. “We lose history every day before our eyes. Historic buildings are demolished or neglected until they fall apart, which is really demolition by neglect. Native earthworks and village sites are often destroyed not intentionally – but because there hasn’t been enough of an effort to speak up and identify the sites and talk about their inclusion into the future of Southeast Ohio.”

When the SOHC decided to purchase the First Christian Church, it was largely in response to the concern that the historic site would be utilized for student housing in some manner.

“The negotiation for the purchase occurred in January 2016, and the construction on the building started in June of last year –it’s been a little hectic,” said O’Grady of the building’s stunning transformation. The SOHC moved into the under-construction site last year.

“We’re just a little non-profit, and we weren’t able to rent someplace else to work in the meantime,” said O’Grady, who said that the SOHC has been sharing the space with the congregation of the First Christian Church – who he described as “very good roommates and neighbors.”

O’Grady said that during the process of the restoration he would go around each day and speak to the people working there to get a feel of what region of Ohio they hailed from.

“We did everything that we could to hire local contractors – and when I would speak to them they’d tell me that they were from Murray City, Hocking County, Perry County and Chester Hill and Gallipolis in Gallia County,” said O’Grady. “It’s kind of neat that the Southeast Ohio History Center was built by Southeast Ohioans, and that the kind of work that we had them doing was in preserving the architectural integrity of the building. They’re very proud of the work that they’ve done, and they’ve even been bringing their families here to show them what they did.”

Throughout the next couple of weeks the outfit has some exciting events going on, including a History Happy Hour on May 12, which will feature screenings of two of director Bill Beard’s regionally produced documentaries – one about the 1930 Millfield Minefield Disaster and Burhania: Old Time Music in Athens. The event will feature live music by Jack Wright and the Burhans Family. Tickets are $10 for members, $15 for non-members. The organization plans to have additional such community friendly events in the future.

A photo of the grand opening of the new location for the Southeast Ohio History Center. (
A photo of the grand opening of the new location for the Southeast Ohio History Center. (

Outside of the new home for the SOHC, O’Grady continues to point out various intricate works in the architecture that contracting crews have put together on the building over the past year.

“The historical society did the bold and courageous thing and bought this church – and now we have to raise the money to pay for it,” he said. “Even though it’s difficult, it’s the right thing to do, and we will do it.”

As O’Grady speaks, a car with a rattling muffler zooms past on North Congress Street.

He laughs.

“We did manage to pick the nosiest corner in town,” he says. “Not a single person who drives past here has a muffler.”