Tifton Museum of Arts and Heritage History
The Tifton Museum of Arts and Heritage (TMAH) is housed in a 110-years-old architectural treasure that was originally the First Methodist Church. The building was the first brick church built in the community and it brought a refined elegance at the turn of the century to the growing rural town. Hundreds of Tiftonites, their children and grandchildren, were christened, baptized, married and memorialized in the beautiful Victorian Gothic structure, built by “Captain” Henry Harding Tift, a Connecticut Yankee, who founded the town.
Legend has it that the building was constructed with brick instead of lumber to protect it from lumbermen and turpentiners, customers and good friends of local frame saloon owners, who burned down wooden churches while they were still under construction.
The building has had close ties to the town’s cultural life from its earliest years. Regular programs were presented in the sanctuary by the Tifton Music Club and visiting musicians. Long-time members tell of soirees held for famed opera star singer Lilly Ponds and performances by violinist Romanoff, as well as the town’s own local “concert in the park” band and the church choir.
Constructed in 1900 and once hailed as “the finest church in the South,”’ the 3500 square-foot building’s rather simple exterior opens to reveal an expansive octagonal-shaped interior, rich with color and ornamentation. The fine-grained heart pine lumber of the interior walls and ceiling were handcrafted by ship carpenters, or joiners, retained by Captain Tift.
The vaulted ceiling is supported by massive arched buttresses, while intricate carved medallions and bull’s-eye plinth blocks on the door and window moldings serve as a counterpoint to the ceiling’s magnificent height and strength. The original bell tower, topped with an elegant brass final, is still intact.
But the true jewels of the building are the twenty-four stained and fired glass windows, which suffuse the building with light and color. Three triplet ecclesiastical windows each feature unusual designs, glass and color. All the exterior and interior doors are graced with stained glass transoms. Many of the rondels and glass décor in the windows were available only in Italy at the time the building was constructed.
For more information on the stained glass windows and the restoration process please see Cindy Hammond’s blog post Tifton Museum: A Historic Treasure Houses Art.
In 1952, the original owners vacated the building to accommodate a growing congregation and the facility was occupied by various denominations until 1985 when the Tift County Development Authority purchased it to protect it was vandals and potential demolition.
With the exception of occasional occupancy by various small church groups, the building was left empty throughout four decades, its beauty slowly giving way to age, termites and the elements.
In 1990, with leadership from the Tifton Rotary Club, a non-profit organization was formed to restore the building and to raise funds to transform it into a community cultural center. A partnership was formed with ABAC’s Arts Experiment Station (now the Arts Connection) The Arts Experiment Station wrote and received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for $125,000 which served as the catalyst for the County’s commitment of $250,000 in SPLOST funds to assist with the project. Ultimately, the City, County and private donors raised over $500,000 to complete the renovation.
Local architect Roy Rankin, a great grandson of Captain Tift, was the volunteer project manager, and with extensive help from unpaid City and community workers, as well as a contracted crew, the building was restored and returned to the citizens as the Tifton Museum of Arts and Heritage….a cherished architectural jewel of the City.
Re-opened and dedicated in the spring of 1997, the building today is operated by the Tifton Museum of Arts and Heritage Board of Directors and Volunteer Guild. It serves as a cultural anchor for downtown Tifton and provides regular arts, education and cultural programming to people of all ages and interests. In addition the facility is frequently rented for weddings, receptions, and a variety of community social and civic events.