Churches embody most of what preservationists and urban planners look for in good cities: They are community gathering places, often boasting impressive architecture. They're distinctive and literal landmarks that broadcast historic, cultural, sometimes ethnic, and also spiritual identities in their respective neighborhoods. Preserving them is also difficult, as Peter Callaghan points out in the Tacoma News Tribune.
Tacoma, he says, is still stunned over the destruction of the gothic First United Methodist Church in 2007. The demolition caught preservationists by surprise, he writes, and before anyone knew it, "a 90-year-old church housing one of the city’s first religious communities was demolished." He observes, "Not much to be proud of there. Not much to look back upon fondly."
Out of guilt, he says the city is embarking on an inventory of older churches. There are nearly 200 churches in the city built before 1965, but only seven are protected on the city's register of historic structures. The inventory will better prepare preservationists to be proactive in defense of their religious institutions in the future.
Protecting churches is problematic in Washington because the state Supreme Court has ruled, on grounds of religious freedom and separation of church and state, that a church cannot be landmarked over the congregation's objection. You can't tell people how and where they'll worship and what they can do with their property, aside from basic zoning and building code issues. Forcing a church to save its building because of the broader community's interest in historic preservation was ruled as an intrusive step too far.
That decision was a factor in Seattle's own near-loss of its historic First United Methodist Church sanctuary in downtown Seattle. The old sanctuary had become something of a white elephant. Its congregants wanted to sell the downtown property for development and move to a new location. Preservationists objected, including King County Council member Dow Constantine, who worked to save the structure. A new deal between a developer (Nitze-Stagen) and the church's congregation was worked out whereby the church was able to move elsewhere and the sanctuary was saved while a high-rise tower will go up on a portion of the church's former property.
But as Tacoma's loss indicates, not all church stories have a happy ending. The problem with saving churches is a national one. Not only are there religious freedom issues, but as many urban church congregations have shrunk, the financial burdens of maintaining large churches have risen. Many churches have also changed their missions and style of worship: organs, stained glass and gothic arches have given way to homeless shelters and soup kitchens. Chicken soup for the soul is now real chicken soup served to the struggling underclass. Old-time sanctuaries weren't designed for providing social services. As a result, they often begin to decay as maintenance money either dries up or goes elsewhere.
Another factor is the press of development and density. In New York City during the late real estate boom, churches especially became hot properties. Most are low-rise (not counting steeples) which makes the land under them choice spots for residential high-rise apartments. Selling out to developers is sometimes seen as the Christian thing to do. As one preacher told the New York Times last fall, "Christianity is not about a building, it's about people doing work in the name of Christ." Unloading an old church frees them up so they don't "have to worry about fixing the roof all the time."
Some churches are looking at reorganizing how they provide services and worship opportunities to their people. A group of Protestant churches in the University District, for example, has explored whether to consolidate under one roof to save money, share worship facilities, and more efficiently provide services to at-risk youth, seniors, and others in need. Consolidation would presumably make some U District church properties ripe for sale or development. Depending on which church buildings would survive a reorganization, preservationists might have to scramble to save sanctuaries no longer wanted by their stewards.
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