Monday, February 06, 2006

Thoughts on the Value of Historic Buildings

Thoughts on the Value of Historic Buildings

A recent discussion thread on Urban St. Louis got me to thinking a bit more about the value of historic buildings.

The topic was the new development in the Hyde Park neighborhood called Salisbury Park, guided by an ecumenical housing organization called Better Living Communities.

Better Living was founded by and is closely affiliated with Bethlehem Lutheran Church, located at the NW corner of Salisbury and N. Florissant, a part of the (rather conservative) Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS).

Bethlehem appears to be a fairly active, albeit small congregation. Its history goes back all the way to 1849, as Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran Church. In the early 1990s the congregation basically abandoned their landmark historic sanctuary, built initially in 1893 and rededicated in 1895 after a fire largely destroyed it. In the big 1927 tornado, the spires were felled. Nevertheless, it clearly was a magnificent structure, enough that the congregation redecorated the interior in 1949 for the church's centennial.

Today's Bethlehem congregation meets in the c. 1930 school building next door; meanwhile, vandalism and the elements have taken their toll on the landmark corner church.

I just don't understand such a decision to abandon a structure just because it is too costly to maintain. While the community work and the Christian community itself at such a church is intrinsically valuable, it does seem like abandoning such a structure represents turning one's back on the history of the place, and the many members who gave of their time and money over the years to keep the place going.

If it came back after a fire and a tornado, why did it have to be abandoned now?

Admittedly, the early German congregants started moving out of the neighborhood within a few years after that 1949 centennial celebration. Construction of I-70, closure of meat packing plants and other factories, and the endless push to the North County suburbs all took their toll on congegrations such as Bethlehem.

If we don't know where we've been, how can we know where we're going?

Hence, I greatly appreciate the efforts of congregations across the city to keep themselves going in their historic sanctuaries. Even in economically distressed Hyde Park, other churches like Holy Trinity Roman Catholic and Friedens UCC remain in their historic structures and maintain active community outreach programs.

I've noticed that some other LCMS churches, like Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer located down the block from my house, have been gradually vacating their historic sanctuaries. There, signs on the replacement red steel doors indicate that the congregation of about 20 now meets in the church hall next door. A while back, a Baptist group put out some flyers in the neighborhood indicating they'd be using the place as well.

I realize that, when you don't have a whole lot of money or resources, keeping up with the maintenance on a 100-year-old building is tough. I don't exactly have a great track-record in this regard myself. Churches, as tax-exempt entities, cannot benefit directly from historic tax credits, and many big donors and grant awarders will not fund capital campaigns. Nevertheless, honoring the memory of those who came before us is important enough in itself to make the effort.

1 comment:

Michael Allen said...

Great post, Joe! While maintenance can be difficult to afford for congregations that have gotten even smaller in the years since their last fire or tornado, many congregations don't seem to try very hard. Perhaps creative thinking is needed, such as partnering with nonprofit groups looking for meeting or performance space.

In the case of Bethelehem Lutheran, the church group seems more interested in real estate development in the neighborhood than even keeping their old sanctuary secure. That's a situation that seems common on the northside, where the allure of playinga role in large-scale development of new homes can overshadow attempts to keep the churches' heritage in good repair.

If Bethlehem Lutheran no longer wants to use the sanctuary, they should honor the history of the building by making a strong effort to sell it. Otherwise, the congregants are doing their neighborhood and themselves a disservice.