Without a miracle, First Christian Church is seeing its last Sunday morning.
The nearly 100-year-old church at 840 Third Ave. SE is probably coming down this week. The building and land are owned by St. Luke’s Hospital, where its affiliate, Physicians’ Clinic of Iowa, is building a new medical pavilion. The church property is one small notch in that sprawling project. Its demolition creates 40 parking spots.
It’s sad, disappointing and unsettling.
For the last few months, a group called Save C.R. Heritage has been trying to convince St. Luke’s to reconsider. They’ve brought in experts who say the property can and should be saved. They’ve found evidence in an actual program from the church’s 1913 dedication ceremony that Louis Sullivan was the building’s consulting architect. St. Luke’s is still skeptical of Sullivan’s role, although I’m not sure why the good Christian folks of 1913 would fib to the future.
To the hospital’s credit, it listened, accommodated inspections and paused demolition. This is not some biblical story of good versus evil. It’s a group of gritty, dedicated folks up against a big institution with other plans. We’ve seen movie this before.
But to me, this saga changed May 4 when Mayor Ron Corbett asked St. Luke’s leadership to consider donating the church to preservationists, while also pledging that the city would put $300,000 toward its redevelopment. Add in state historic tax credits, and you’ve dented the $2 million St. Luke’s claims it would cost.
So the city’s top elected official, who speaks for the broader community, made it clear that the community would like to see the church saved. St. Luke’s thought about it, but said no. Hospital spokeswoman Laura Rainey says the offer was all hopes, but no concrete plans. Corbett said he was told a donation would be too legally complicated.
Closing a major street to accommodate the medical mall was also pretty complicated, along with crafting that large pot of TIF incentives and plans for a city-financed parking garage. City leaders have invested a lot of hope, not to mention political capital and millions of bucks, in the project’s potential. They made very tough calls with hopes that the community would benefit. They bought into PCI’s hopes, which are now becoming concrete.
Now, asked by the city to make its own tough call on behalf of the community, St. Luke’s sticks to its own interests. The same folks who were telling us not so long ago how the medical mall would be a great catalyst for development now say they seriously doubt that the church can be redeveloped. It doesn’t add up. Why would a great historic building sit empty and rot in the midst of this dynamic new development that we had to stop from moving to Hiawatha?
It’s also clear that the medical mall debate cost its backers some community good will. This would have been a great chance to mend fences. Perhaps they don’t think good will is worth all that much. But they may feel differently some day when their institutions, inevitably, must come back to the community with a new request for assistance.
It’s still possible some good may come of this. Corbett says the city may create a fund to help redevelop other threatened historic properties. So this sad saga may have a positive legacy.
But it’s Sunday, the most hopeful day of the week. The church still stands. And as is sometimes said from the pulpits on this day, it’s never really too late for redemption.