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CHURCH SITE TO BECOME GARDEN

It will be green space for Princess Martha residents.

The owners of the Princess Martha Hotel have no immediate plans to build on the property of the historic Baptist church they'll seek permission to raze.

WRH Princess Martha LLC signed an agreement Monday to purchase the local landmark for $1.1-million.

Short-term plans call for the church, which is next door to the Princess Martha, to be demolished and the land used for green space for residents of the 119-unit independent living facility, said Mark Rutledge, president of WRH Income Properties Inc.

"We plan to use it for a garden for our residents ... like a healing garden," he said.

"There is a little bit of landscaping, but the residents don't have any place to enjoy the outdoors, except for the pool on the second floor."

Citing the current economic climate, Rutledge said building on the site across from Williams Park is not immediately feasible. He added that any development would complement ongoing revitalization of the Williams Park neighborhood.

Over the years, preservationists have fought attempts to demolish the former Baptist church at 120 Fourth St. N. A neoclassical structure, it was built in 1924, the year the Princess Martha rose on the block. The sanctuary was named a local historic landmark in 1994. The Princess Martha acquired the same distinction the following year.

In 1990, the Baptist property changed hands when the First Baptist Church of St. Petersburg relocated to Gandy Boulevard. St. Peter's Episcopal Cathedral, a neighbor at 140 Fourth St. N, bought the church and its five-story education building for $1-million. The old church has sat largely unused since then and stymied St. Peter's redevelopment efforts.

Will Michaels, president of St. Petersburg Preservation, said he hopes the building can be saved in its entirety, or at least its imposing façade preserved.

Rutledge said his firm considered preserving the building, but after meeting with construction experts realized such a decision would not be "cost justifiable."

"We are preservationists, and so it's not that we want to raze the first Baptist Church or demolish a historical structure. Our goal is to ensure the long-term viability of the Princess Martha as well as help St. Peter's achieve their redevelopment efforts and collectively have a stronger neighborhood," Rutledge said.

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

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