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Repurposing facilities for their original purposes – Upper Room Chapel in Fort Mill, SC

We often forget about this, but all of the wonderful buildings that have been built will eventually get torn down, if they haven’t been torn down already. Those edifices that look so sturdy could easily disappear thousands, or hundreds, or even tens of years later.

In the shorter term, a building may be built and then may be abandoned. Perhaps there will be a reason for someone to maintain the abandoned building, or perhaps the building will be torn down; if neither of those two options occurs, the building simply fades away, perhaps being taken over by the surrounding grasslands or forest or desert.

Americans (and others) of a certain age may remember the Heritage USA complex in Fort Mill, South Carolina. Built in the 1970s by Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker (leaders of the religious PTL Club), by 1986 Heritage USA was the third most popular vacation destination in the United States, eclipsed only by the (then) two U.S. theme parks established by Disney. Here are some home videos of Heritage USA from that period.

A mere three years later, in 1989, Heritage USA was closed, due to the fallout from the Jessica Hahn affair, investigations into the Bakkers’ finances, and Hurricane Hugo. Kerry Decker visited the empty park in August 1989:

Today, the property has been subdivided and hosts a number of religious and secular organizations, including a golf course, a communications broadcast facility, homes, a hotel…and a prayer center.

The prayer center traces its…um, heritage to the original efforts of the Bakkers. Despite their faults, they did some positive things:

The spiritual center of Heritage USA was a two-story building modeled after the Upper Room in Jerusalem, said to be the site where Jesus held the last supper with his disciples and then reappeared to them after his resurrection to give them the Holy Spirit….

Bakker’s Upper Room, say those that worked at or visited there, was the heartbeat of the resort.

It was staffed around the clock, with ministers waiting to pray for people, anoint them with oil and offer communion. Small cubicles along one wall offered space for private prayers.

In the basement, staffers manned numerous phones, listening to people’s prayer requests.

Prayer was a prime concern, said Dot Scott, who worked for PTL. She remembers Bakker telling the staff to stop and pray with anyone in need.

After praying with visitors, “I would tell people to go to the Upper Room and their needs would be met there,” said Scott, who lives in Fort Mill. “I asked them to come back to me and let me know how they felt. So many came back a different person.”

But after 1989, the Upper Room began to fade away.

Fred Yeary of Charlotte…was there the day Jim Bakker dedicated the park. He worked on the broadcast crew, and volunteered at the park, once even planting grass seed.

After the park closed, Yeary would occasionally drive past the Upper Room and remember. As trees started reclaiming the property – and people vandalized the building – Yeary stopped driving past.

“It was too painful,” he said.

In 2010, Russell James was at the site. James also had a long history with the site – he was one of those who purchased a $1,000 PTL “lifetime membership” which died prematurely. Now a Christian conference/concert promoter, he felt called (and I use the word “called” in the religious sense) to do something about the Upper Room, which was for sale.

He took a proposed contract to the property owner, Colston Enterprises. They discussed the contract and agreed to a sale.

James had a new mission. “God wanted me to return this property to a house of prayer and worship.”

Upper Room Chapel is now open, and its message is being conveyed in ways that the Bakkers could not have envisioned in the 1970s or 1980s. Ironically, the Bakkers themselves were technological pioneers, having participated in the founding of three religious broadcasting networks (CBN, TBN, and their own PTL). But could they have envisioned the Upper Room being promoted on a website for “Roadside America,” or that people would use mobile phones to “check in” to the site via Foursquare, or that there would be a webcam?

For more information, see http://www.upperroomchapel.com/ or https://www.facebook.com/groups/62147692320/.

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