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Is There a Better Way to Save Historic Buildings That Everybody Wants to Save?

Is There a Better Way to Save Historic Buildings That Everybody Wants to Save?

By Laura Putre

For 25 years, the Fifth Church of Christ Scientist has stood empty at the corner of West 117th Street and Lake Avenue, a sleeping sentry marking the border between Cleveland’s Edgewater neighborhood and the city of Lakewood. In lesser hands, the octagonal structure designed by architect Frank Bail might have been merely quirky. But Bail had higher aspirations. The elegantly proportioned building, which comes together in the center in a central dome clad in clay tile, accomplishes a lot in a relatively small amount of space, without feeling overwrought.  The little cupola perched on top adds to the neoclassical charm.

Fifth Church has been empty so long—it lost its congregation in 1989—that Cleveland journalists are on their second generation of writing about its potential fates. The first story I wrote about Fifth Church and the neighbors trying to save the building ran around 1998, in the Cleveland Free Times, a publication that has joined the church in desuetude.

Fifth Church in its heyday. Courtesy of Neighbors in Action.

Some time after writing that first piece, I moved away from Cleveland, to a street in Chicago that was changing like a time-lapse film. I could have served popcorn and charged admission to watch the riveting transformation. It was around 2004, at the height of a building boom in Chicago. In a matter of weeks, I saw a small army of stoneworkers and plasterers buff up a shambling 19th-century mansion across the street into a luxury condo building that had both the European grandeur of the original and new granite countertops.

If I felt sorry for the building before, now I just wanted to look away.  

Brick three-flats and cottages dating from the same era, only some as remarkable architecturally, came down to make way for million-dollar homes that, on the outside at least, had all the personality of a milk carton.

An old building left to rot for 25 years? Not in that neighborhood.

In 2009, I moved back to Cleveland, where progress tends to happen at a more, uh, glacial pace. The Fifth Church was still standing, still barren. Neglect and the elements had stripped a few more layers from the church’s exterior (a combination of Ohio sandstone and marble from the Rockies), leaving it with all the luster of an old dishrag. If I felt sorry for the building before, now I just wanted to look away.

Why has this building stood unused so long? In the 1990s, Edgewater residents organized and vocalized against a grocery store chain’s plans to level the church for customer parking. If anyone could have saved the church, it was that group. They collected more than 3,000 signatures on a petition to save it. They got the church designated as a landmark and, after Riser Foods (the grocery chain) stripped the church of its interior detail during asbestos removal, successfully pushed for a city ordinance that set minimum maintenance standards for landmarked buildings.

Now the neighbors, fresh from their latest attempt to save Fifth Church, are finally calling it a day. Reuse plans—including a rock-climbing gym, a bookstore, mixed-use condos and retail, a Hungarian heritage museum—have come and gone, because they weren’t financially viable, or they didn’t fit well enough with the neighborhood, or the economy tanked at just the wrong time. The grocery store that wanted to level the church for parking is long gone. With a huge blank in what could be a bustling commerial strip, surrounding businesses have suffered.

In a meeting last May, the Cleveland Landmarks Commission cleared the way for the city to demolish Fifth Church, saying the building had deteriorated to the point that it could no longer be saved. The eulogists at the meeting sounded tired and resigned. “I’ve know this church for a long time,” said Donald Petit, acting secretary of the Cleveland Landmarks Commission. “I have very strong feelings about it. A year before we demolished Emmanuel Episcopal Church, you could stand in the sanctuary and feel like you were in a church. In this place, you feel like a bomb went off.”

“I don’t like being in the salvage business, but in this case I think the greater community good is served by development.”

The landmarked Emmanuel Episcopal Church (also called Church of the Transfiguration) on E. 86th and Euclid was sold to the Cleveland Clinic in 2013 and torn down less than a year later. The demolition met with little resistance from residents. That neighborhood has depopulated over the decades.

Emmanuel Episcopal Church. Cleveland Landmarks Commission.

Thanks to two decades of water damage at Fifth Church, much of the interior walls and the interior of the dome lie in crumpled piles on the concrete floor, which itself is badly damaged from years of freezing and thawing. One exterior section is patched with plywood after the removal of exterior stonework years ago, when gas lines were capped. The plywood was painted over in a feeble attempt to match the stone and marble.

If all goes as planned, the church will give way to sleek townhomes that repurpose stonework from the old building and a boutique supermarket owned by Giant Eagle, successor to Riser Foods.

 After so much time, sweat, and heartbreak, how does this beloved building have a date with demolition? 

The grocery store will have “real windows” and a setback right up to the sidewalk—attributes that Landmarks Commission members enthused about several times in the demolition meeting, describing them as miles ahead of most development plans they see. Their relief at getting windows—plain old everyday windows!—was depressing to see.

All this led me to wonder: After so much time, sweat, and heartbreak, how does this beloved building have a date with demolition? It was very much a wanted building. A healthy cross-section of people with pull and drive fought to save it—residents, politicians, architects, sentimental people, wealthy people, old people who remembered what it used to look like inside, young people who thought about what it could be (one holdout against the demolition plans was City Beautiful, a group of young professionals interested in architecture).

Fifth Church today. Courtesy Neighbors in Action.

Fifth Church today. Courtesy Neighbors in Action.

Yet all good will bought was time. During those years, the neighborhood stood still. Could anything have been done differently? What about the Fifth Church made it so hard to save? Why should anybody care that another crumbling empty church in the Rust Belt is coming down?

***

When it comes to rescuing unused historic buildings, Cleveland and other Rust Belt cities have time on their side—space isn’t at a premium, and buildings tend not to come down as quickly as in denser New York and Chicago to make way for development.

But you have to actually preserve during that time for the building to be an asset. The first few years a historic building sits empty are critical. The roof must be maintained, although some repairs can be deferred without risk. The National Park Service guidelines for repairing historic buildings state that immediate fixes to a roof in need of moderate repair can make a building last an additional ten years. “Replacing cracked or missing shingles, securing loose flashing, and re-anchoring gutters and downspouts” are helpful fixes that don’t require a huge investment, says the NPS.

A temporary aluminum roof can keep significant materials safe from the elements. Even cheaper options include covering the roof with galvanized corrugated metal roofing panels or a rubberized membrane.

Of course, the best way to save a building is to actually use it. People inhabiting a building help keep out thieves, notice problems right when they happen, and have the heat on in winter—basic but important measures for keeping a structure from moldering.

 Missed opportunity: a Y2K dance party benefit held in a magnificently crumbling church. 

Instead of keeping Fifth Church boarded up while seeking a permanent use, the city might have actively sought temporary tenants: Another congregation, arts groups who could have made good use of its open space and stellar acoustics, perhaps even a small manufacturing firm that needed a lot of square footage.

But that wasn’t how most people thought about preservation in the early 2000s. If Fifth Church had been vacated ten years later, perhaps it might have found a second life.

Neighborhood residents fought an early plan to convert the church into the headquarters of a freight company. They didn’t want homes across the Lake Avenue, a leafy residential street, torn down for truck parking. Really, who can blame them?  That sort of use seems better suited to an industrial area. The developer threw up his hands and sold the building for a nice profit in 1992—to perhaps the worst possible buyer, a grocery store that shared the lot with the church.

***

The grocery store’s plan was straightforward: demolish the building and use the space for a store expansion and parking. Neighbors rallied again, packing meetings to air their displeasure and collecting 1,125 signatures on a petition. For ten years, they pushed back to save the building..

According to the Clifton Area Residents’ Association, during that decade, the owners (now Giant Eagle, which bought Riser Foods) ignored maintenance, admitting in a neighborhood meeting that their intent was to let the building deteriorate to a point that it would have to come down.

Epiphany Church in Chicago.

Epiphany Church in Chicago.

They did tend to one bit of work, however: asbestos removal, which stripped much of the interior detail. Outraged neighbors packed City Hall in 1995 to deliver a petition with 2,400 signatures. The petition asked the city to designate the church a Cleveland landmark (a proposal neighborhood groups had first made in 1991). Then-Mayor Michael White signed the landmarking ordinance three days later.

Giant Eagle gave up on demolishing the church in 2002, gifting the building to the city of Cleveland. Perhaps when the city took over, a partnership with the neighborhood groups could have formed, a deal to raise X amounts of funds each year to keep Fifth Church protected from water, cold, and break-ins. With homes on Lake Avenue and Edgewater Drive selling for more than $500K, the area has people with deep pockets. It’s also an enclave for educated, civic-minded sorts who know something about fundraising (missed opportunity: a Y2K dance party benefit held in a magnificently crumbling church). With residents  and other interested parties committed to bringing in money as well as good intentions,, the church would not have been dependent on a stretched-bare city budget.

 Fifth Church was landmarked in 1995, but Cleveland’s Landmarks Commission had no say in its fate until the demolition request arrived in May 2014. That is a fundamental weakness. 

Michael Fleenor, director of Preservation Services for Cleveland Restoration Society, says that after 13 years of neglect, the church “was already in pretty bad shape when [the city] got it.” The supermarket’s strategy of malignant neglect had worked, although they hadn’t stuck around long enough to gain by it. “The city tried with this building,” Fleenor says. “There was an incredible amount of stakeholder outreach and participation. I think there was a really good attempt on everybody’s part to save the building, but it was just too late in this case.”

***

Fifth Church was landmarked in 1995, but Cleveland’s Landmarks Commission had no say in its fate until the demolition request arrived in May 2014. That is a fundamental weakness in the structure of the commission, says Jennifer Coleman, its chair.

“We do not intervene in coming up with projects,” she says. “The projects have to be brought to us. We don’t have money—it would be great if we did—but it would take a whole boatload of money to be able to mitigate the problems that landmarks have. We’re just not set up for it.”

The city’s Building and Housing Department has jurisdiction over the upkeep of landmarked buildings, not Landmarks. “We don’t have the ability to say, ‘Hey that facility is in bad shape, let’s do this thing in order to stop that,” says Coleman. “We’re set up to really to be project-based, or when Building and Housing has a problem with a building’s condition being very unsafe” and is considering demolition.

The fact that Landmarks must sit on its hands while buildings deteriorate is “a huge issue in Cleveland,” says Fleenor. “There are other cities where the landmarks commission has the staff to cite building owners who are violating the ordinance. [In Cleveland] that’s left more up to the Building Department and they don’t even necessarily know preservation.” He adds that while Cleveland’s ordinance allows the city to fine building owners who are not meeting minimal maintenance requirements, “I don’t know of fines being issued here.”

Fleenor says that if the Stanley Block in downtown Cleveland had not been left to deteriorate, “you would have a different situation than you had.” The building, which was on the National Register of Historic Places, was in such bad shape that the city declared it an “immediate danger to human life or health” in 2013. It was demolished. The empty land was promptly scooped up by the neighboring Horseshoe Casino.

***

A beautiful old building, no matter how much the neighbors love it, can be not only a financial millstone, but a huge time-suck. “Some buildings are harder than others to save because they don’t lend themselves to reuse, says Ward Miller, president of Preservation Chicago. “Churches, that’s a huge one. Movie palaces. But it doesn’t matter if it’s a small one or a big building. It seems like you need a sensitive person or owner to come in and think it through, and a clever developer. Maybe that’s what didn’t happen to the Christian Science church.”

Epiphany Episcopal Church on Chicago’s Near West Side was nearly empty when then-pastor Meigan Cameron took over its congregation of about 50 in 2003. The Romanesque Revival church, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was run-down but architecturally significant. She mothballed most of its wooden pews and arranged the remaining seating in a circle—a cheap “adaptive reuse” for a space designed to hold 900 people. To pay the bills, she held winter farmers’ markets in the nave, rented the sanctuary to experimental dance troupes and the cobwebbed basement to people who made mystery films, and partnered with the Empty Bottle nightclub for an Epiphany concert series.

“Epiphany was a great space for performing arts,” Cameron says. “Because of its structure, it was a physically large open space that could be manipulated. Some churches aren’t open like that—you have a large narrow space with columns that could be re-adapted for more like visual arts. The little side chapels could serve as galleries. You have to think about ‘How does my space work, and is it possible?’”

 “For this to work, the city needs to helpful,” Cameron says. “I had a lot of trouble getting the alderman’s office to help me.” 

The rentals covered the cost of the upkeep, says Cameron. “And what that meant was all the congregation had to pay was its own expenses. It had to pay its religious expenses.”

But Epiphany’s luck ran out. Cameron had trouble navigating the city’s byzantine permit laws. She was well into the partnership with the Empty Bottle when she found out the performing arts license she had obtained was useless. Churches needed a special performing arts license.

“For this to work, the city needs to helpful,” she says. “I had a lot of trouble getting the alderman’s office to help me.”

Despite her efforts, the church closed in 2011. “The building’s in terrible shape,” says Cameron. “As near as I can tell it’s standing empty. After a winter like this past one, there’s bound to have been some damage. As far as I know, they’re not heating it.”

Three months before the closing, Cameron was fired from her pastorship because the congregation hadn’t grown. She spent too much time keeping the building going. “I worked my ass off,” she says. “But what people remember is that I’ve failed.”

***

In booming Chicago neighborhoods, preservationists have to act quickly. Often, they fail. Sometimes, they have to step up and be badasses. Chicago developers have been known to remove historic details from a landmarked building in the early morning hours when no one is around.

Covering Chicago’s downtown neighborhoods as editor of the Chicago Journal, I remember orthopedic surgeon Michael Moran, then the head of Preservation Chicago, taking a detour to Indiana Avenue in the South Loop before work one morning. He’d gotten a call that a crew was illegally removing copper cornices from a landmarked building that developers had been pushing to tear down. He literally ripped the cornices out of the laborers’ hands.

“It’s really a challenge,” Miller says of being a preservationist in Chicago. “[Failure] happens quite frequently—with so many development pressures, you just can’t get it all together.”

Despite intense opposition from preservationists and concerned citizens, Bertrand Goldberg’s iconic cloverleaf-shaped Prentice Women’s Hospital building met the wrecking ball in 2013, replaced by a Northwestern University research facility. Miller also laments the loss of the Lexington Hotel at Cermak and Michigan, a luxury hotel built for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, and once the site of Al Capone’s crash pad.

“The neighborhood wanted to see it saved, the architectural community wanted to see it saved, but because of the money involved and the project stalling for a long time, and the Democratic [National Convention] coming to town … and the end of the day it got demolished.”

 “It was one of those places that took you out of your life for an hour or two.”

Economically depressed Chicago neighborhoods like West Garfield Park have a preservation timeline more in step with Cleveland’s. Deterioration from neglect is the enemy, not time or market pressure.The Hotel Guyon, a 1928 Moorish-style luxury hotel and grand ballroom known for its red and cream brick and deep maroon terra cotta detailing, has been languishing for decades.

guyon hotel border

“[The Guyon] was in a neighborhood hurt by the Depression first of all,” says Miller. “It was one of those places that took you out of your life for an hour or two, even if it’s all plaster and mirrors, it entertains you and threw you into a movie and two hours later you came out of an unusual experience. So much of that was affected by two world wars and race riots and a changing city.”

West Garfield Park is a neighborhood that, like Cleveland’s Clifton-Edgewater neighborhood, isn’t rich in landmarks and could particularly benefit from having a distinctive building restored. “The city would like to see it saved, the neighborhood would like to,” says Miller. “This is a building that could house a lot of great things, if the players and all the stakeholders could get together and figure out a way to make it happen. But it’s not easy.”

In a sense, saving a building is a mission with no ending. It requires endless energy and ingenuity, especially in Rust Belt cities. There are fewer people, fewer businesses and organizations, and less money in cities like Cleveland. That means fewer potential tenants.

Cincinnati’s Union Terminal, a lavish 1933 train station with the second-largest half dome in the world and stunning glass mosaics that depict scenes from national and local history, just made the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of 11 Most Endangered Public Places for 2014. Union Terminal has been in the process of being saved since the 1950s. The transit hub closed in 1972, and no one came forth with a viable proposal until 1979—“Oz,” an ice skating rink and theater. Oz didn’t materialize, and instead Union Terminal was converted to a mall that closed in 1984.

The terminal was saved again in 1990, when it became the home of the Cincinnati History Museum, an Omnimax theater, the Museum of Natural History and Science, and the Cincinnati Historical Society Library. It hosts 1.4 million visitors a year—but evidently those visitors aren’t leaving much money behind to pay for upkeep. According to the National Trust, Union Terminal is “suffering from deterioration and water damage. The building is facing a critical point in its existence, and is in need of extensive repairs.”

***

Fifth Church is on the fast track to demolition. Bits of it, like the cupola, will be saved and incorporated into the design of the new townhomes. Another thing that could be salvaged are the lessons learned about preservation over a quarter of a century.

Cities can’t stand pat when historic buildings empty out. Landmarks commissions should have the power to cite neglectful owners. Archaic permit laws—such as the one that got Cleveland gallerist Loren Naji in trouble for serving liquor at an opening—should be overhauled if their sole purpose is collecting an extra layer or two of scratch from residents and business owners.

In neighborhoods like Edgewater, where residents have a reasonable amount of money and influence, cities should partner with neighborhood organizations to raise funds for the upkeep of historic buildings. Such funds could pay for extra security, too, because dwindling police departments can’t be expected to “babysit” these buildings. Chicago has these kinds of partnerships in its parks, home to many of its most valuable architectural gems, including the Garfield Park Conservatory and the Humboldt Park Field House.

One more small but important thing: Take pictures of the interior and exterior of the building while it’s still in good shape. Landmarks should have a small budget to hire a photographer to take pictures when an historic building closes. With photos, people will “get” what the building could be again. I couldn’t find any interior photos of Fifth Church in its full beauty, ones that showed all the glorious detail that neighborhood historians talk about.

Fifth Church isn’t the most important old building in Cleveland; but it’s one that stops people in their tracks—gets them to ask ‘What’s that?’ ‘What neighborhood is this?’ and maybe encourages them to explore further. It’s unlikely anything as grand or unusual will rise in Cleveland anytime soon.

“Because of our history we have a lot of very well-designed churches in our city, and we’ll never get to that level of craftsmanship again,” says Landmarks Commission chair Jennifer Coleman. “We just don’t make those craftsmen anymore who could work for fairly cheap.

“Hopefully the city will come up from adversity, and we can be in a position again for people to raise their hand,” she adds. “Because that’s what it takes. Someone to raise their hand and say, ‘I will do this project.’ That’s what happened with Playhouse Square. It wasn’t planning. It was a group of people with good pockets who raised their hand and said, ‘I will take this on.’

“We’re a little short on those people. Our resources are stretched. But once people start doing it, it becomes part of our civic urban lexicon.”

So why exactly do we need to save the next Fifth Church? Why should we care? Because if a neighborhood no longer has the thoughtful, well-crafted, spirit-elevating buildings that tell its story, it doesn’t have a soul. It might have glass-walled condos that sell for a tidy price and other contemporary things of interest. But most new construction doesn’t speak to its neighbors; there’s no conversation between the old and the new. Losing architectural gems like Fifth Church can make a neighborhood too quiet.

Laura Putre is a senior writer at Belt.

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2 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    August 11, 2014

    One possible/partial solution I’d offer would be to support efforts to permit+encourage equity crowdfunding—where instead of an appeal to charity, “donors” are purchasing shares of the final project. This was part of the JOBS act, and it has been stalled by the SEC and others.

    While I agree that local permitting laws are in many (most) instances ridiculous, it’s my understanding that Mr. Naji wasn’t aware he needed an occupancy permit(!). Which is a pretty ridiculous lack of due diligence on his part. Also, the liquor laws in question are a province of the Ohio Division of Liquor Control (but they’re still ridiculous).

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  2. Avatar
    August 13, 2014

    What a well-written story! This level of thoughtful local journalism is practically dead and completely extinct at Cleveland.com/The Plain Dealer/Sun Newspapers/Northeast Ohio Media Group/Advance Publications.

    I would also like to point out two buildings the city of Lakewood lost after they sat vacant and no group came along to preserve and reuse them: the Detroit Theatre and the Hillard Square/Westwood Theatre. All tragically removed (or soon-to-be) due to lack of civic motivation and political backbone. As long as this behavior continues, this region deserves its reputation as third-rate.

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