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Finally, St. Peter's and preservationists find peace with resting place

ST. PETERSBURG

Heavy equipment soon will chomp down on a historic downtown church that has overlooked Williams Park since 1924.

Demolition will be partial, restricted to the building's rear and preserving the imposing streetside facade with its 30-foot Greek revival columns.

The former First Baptist Church, which has been mostly unused since its congregation moved to Gandy Boulevard and sold it to neighboring St. Peter's Episcopal Cathedral in 1990, will be reborn as a columbarium. Its grounds will be open to the public and include a garden, fountain, gazebo and a small section for cremated pets.

The recently announced plans for the historic sanctuary at 120 Fourth St. N mark a turning point for St. Peter's. The cathedral had struggled for almost 20 years to sell or develop the property. Most plans called for demolition of the old church, which preservationists fiercely opposed.

Last year, though, an agreement was reached to allow St. Peter's to partly demolish the neoclassical revival structure. In January, the Community Preservation Commission gave its approval.

"We are really pleased at the solution that keeps church activities there, and it is also an enhancement to a downtown property on the west side of Williams Park,'' said Sheree Graves, St. Peter's senior warden.

"We presented this to the Downtown Neighborhood Association, and they were very pleased,'' she said.

So are preservationists.

"Obviously, it would have been nice to have been able to save the entire Baptist church, but we are saving the best part of it,'' said Will Michaels, president of St. Petersburg Preservation.

"It maintains the historic look on Fourth Street, and it maintains the historic look from Williams Park, which is our downtown square," he said. "I think that the plans they have for the columns and the garden on the west side are excellent. Some of the sensitivity that was used in preparing that design was really outstanding. The new fountain will be where the historical baptismal font was.

"Those kinds of sensitive touches show proper respect for a historic church that was important to many people."

Demolition of the back two-thirds of the old church is scheduled to begin this month. A new, columned facade will be built for the garden view.

Offices and historical records of the church will be housed in the basement, while columbarium niches will be placed on the ground floor and mezzanine levels. The garden will include additional niches and a memorial section for the indigent. Eventually, there could be as many as 10,000 niches, Graves said. Prices will range from about $3,000 to more than $6,000. The project, to be known as the City Peace Garden, is expected to be complete next March.

Work on the church is expected to cost more than $1.5 million, Graves said. The 40-foot-deep section of the structure being saved will include the sidewalls, roof and stair towers that rise into the balcony.

"We're going to salvage the windows, and another church is looking at the pews,'' Graves said. "Some folks are interested in the bricks. We will use some.''

The cornerstone on the northwest side of the church containing a copy of the New Testament, a roll of members, music and other items will also be preserved.

The garden will be gated and supervised.

"It is a memorial garden, and we need it to be treated respectfully,'' Graves said. "After normal daily hours, it will be locked and only available by appointment."

Bill Johnson, a longtime member of First Baptist Church, remembers the day the congregation moved to Gandy Boulevard. He likes the plan that will save his old church.

"I think that it's certainly something that will be an addition to the community downtown," he said. "I think they are to be commended for saving a piece of the building. A peace garden is something that is probably unique in a downtown area."

Preservationists had asked that St. Peter's make a professional archival record of the building. That record will include photographs and blueprints of historic importance.

St. Peter's, which is undergoing expansion and redevelopment (in addition to the proposed columbarium project) worth $7.5 million, recently applied to become a local historic landmark. The Gothic revival cathedral at 140 Fourth St. N was built in 1899.

The request has been approved by the Community Preservation Commission and will go before the City Council.

In an e-mail, Michaels described St. Peter's as "one of the oldest and most significant remaining historic properties in the city." He said it is the centerpiece and oldest structure of the 13 historic properties lining the Fourth Street corridor, starting with the Historic Pennsylvania Hotel on the north and ending with the Tramor Cafeteria on the south.

It will be the second oldest landmark in the city.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

Path to preservation

1990: St. Peter's Episcopal Church buys

former First Baptist Church.

1994: Baptist sanctuary is designated local

historic landmark.

2001: St. Peter's seeks permission to tear down the historic church. Request is denied. City Council then agrees to the demolition, provided St. Peter's can show it has money

for new construction. It is given until December 2004 to raise the money.

2004: City Council grants a one-year extension to the demolition permit if St. Peter's agrees to preserve the Baptist church facade.

2005: St. Peter's signs a contract with a developer to build a condo tower and parking garage on the property.

2007: Cathedral and developer part ways.

St. Peter's puts the church on the market.

2008: Owners of Princess Martha Hotel next door want to buy and demolish the building. Preservationists object. Later, preservationists and St. Peter's agree to save the facade.

Finally, St. Peter's and preservationists find peace with resting place 05/02/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 2, 2009 4:31am]
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