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HISTORIC CHURCH FACES RAZING

The former First Baptist Church is bought for expansion of a retirement home.

The owners of the Princess Martha Hotel have signed a contract to buy the historic old Baptist church next door, and will seek to have it demolished.

The plan is all but certain to be opposed by preservationists.

WRH Princess Martha LLC signed the agreement Monday, said William R. Hough, an investor with WRH Income Properties.

"The intention we have is to replace the Baptist church with something that would be beneficial to the Princess Martha,'' Hough said.

Preservationists have opposed previous attempts to demolish the neoclassical building that has belonged to nearby St. Peter's Episcopal Cathedral since 1990.

"I would be very disappointed to see it torn down. It's one of the city's icons. It has just marvelous architecture and it's a place that has so many memories for a lot of us in St. Pete,'' said Will Michaels, president of St. Petersburg Preservation.

"It would be the passing of another one of the great historical buildings of the city. I would hope there would be some discussion (of) alternatives to tearing it down.''

Architect Tim Clemmons, who recently toured the building, said he believes the church is structurally sound.

"I realize that the trick is to find a viable economic use for the building,'' he said. "I think that would be the question mark for anybody. What do you do with it? That being said, it is a historic landmark in St. Petersburg. It's a beautiful example of Greek revival architecture.''

Hough said the Princess Martha needs the property for expansion.

"No plan has been fully developed, but it would involve seeking permission from the city to demolish the building,'' he said.

"I hope that the community would support the Princess Martha, because it's a historic structure and we've made a large investment to preserve it. One architect I know made the comment that the Baptist church should be sacrificed to preserve two other historic structures, namely, the Princess Martha and (nearby) St. Peter's.''

WRH Princess Martha LLC, a subsidiary of WRH Income Properties, has agreed to buy the property from St. Peter's for $1.1-million. It had initially been listed for $1.75-million.

For St. Peter's, the purchase of the building at 120 Fourth St. N, will bring to a close a long and controversial period. "We're incredibly excited,'' said Sheree Graves, the cathedral's senior warden.

For more than a decade, the cathedral had tried to redevelop its downtown property, but preservationists and city officials opposed tearing down the old Baptist building. Meanwhile, church officials complained that the unused structure was costing thousands of dollars in upkeep.

The cathedral purchased the former First Baptist Church of St. Petersburg and its adjacent five-story education building in 1990 for $1-million, shortly after the Baptist congregation moved to new quarters on Gandy Boulevard.

Hough, a well-known businessman and philanthropist, has had a long association with St. Peter's. While he attends St. Thomas' Episcopal Church on Snell Isle, he has supported St. Peter's capital campaign for its redevelopment project.

In recent months, those plans have begun to coalesce. In December, the church began demolishing its office building, parish hall and five-story Cathedral Center for Ministry - once the education center of the old Baptist church - to make room for a new one-story building for offices, meeting and fellowship space.

The new building would be connected to the St. Peter's historic Gothic revival cathedral at 140 Fourth St. N. Church officials recently announced that the new building will now be three stories. St. Peter's will lease some of the extra space, Graves said.

The expanded project will cost about $10-million and construction should begin in mid May and last for about 14 to 18 months, Graves said.

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

FAST FACTS

Timeline

1990 First Baptist Church of St. Petersburg leaves its downtown location and moves to Gandy Boulevard. St. Peter's Cathedral buys the old Baptist property, which includes the church and educational building, for $1-million.

1994 Former Baptist sanctuary designated local historic landmark.

2001 St. Peter's seeks permission from St. Petersburg Historic Preservation Commission to tear down the historic church. Preservationists oppose the proposal. The request is denied twice. Later that year, St. Peter's wins the support of Mayor Rick Baker and the council agrees to let the cathedral demolish the old sanctuary, provided it can show it has the money for any 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 the cathedral agrees to preserve the Baptist church facade.

2005 St. Peter's signs a contract with a developer to build a condominium tower and parking garage on property that includes the old Baptist sanctuary.

2006 The plan hits a stumbling block when the city's Environmental Development Commission says the six-level garage must be enclosed, which will cost more money.

2007 The cathedral and the developer end their agreement to build the high-rise condominium and garage. A few months later, St. Peter's decides to sell the former Baptist church.

2007 In December, the cathedral begins demolition of some of its buildings for new offices, fellowship and meeting space.

Feb. 4, 2008 WRH Princess Martha LLC signs a contract to buy the former Baptist church for $1.1-million.

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