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RETIREMENT HOME OWNER PLANS TO BUY, RAZE CHURCH

But the demolition plans are expected to be opposed by preservationists in St. Petersburg.

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," said Hough.

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.

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.

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.

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 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

A time line

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: The former Baptist sanctuary is designated a local historic landmark.

2001: St. Peter's seeks permission from the 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 City 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: The City Council grants a one-year extension to the demolition permit if the cathedral agrees to preserve the church's facade.

2005: St. Peter's signs a contract with a developer to build a condominium tower and a 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 would 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 and 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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