Thursday, October 11, 2007

"The old lady won't fall down ..."

Or so said an attendant at the visitor center in Burlington when I stopped there during early September and we got to talking about Burlington First United Methodist Church, a fire-gutted ruin up hill from the riverfront at the corner of Washington and Fifth streets.

This wonderful old church, built during 1889 of jasper granite quarried near Sioux City, S.D., fell victim to an arsonist during the early morning of Sunday, April 29, and has stood there roofless and filled with rubble since as members of the congregation debated what to do. That in itself is a testament to both the building’s importance and the commitment of Burlington residents to it, since both Washington and Fifth streets have been blocked since the fire and the building surrounded by a chain-link fence.

“The old lady won’t fall down” referred to the fact that as and after the church burned fire officials were concerned that the building’s towering northwest steeple would come crashing down and I believe they even attempted to encourage it to do so. But it’s still standing, and looks as if it may continue to do so for many years to come.

Not long after I was in Burlington, according to The Burlington Hawk Eye, the First Church congregation voted by a very narrow margin to spend $380,000 to stabilize the ruin’s walls, take down the wood portion of the steeple and weatherproof what’s left of the building --- giving it the option of rebuilding within the old walls. That work began during late September, The Hawk Eye reported, and is expected to be completed during November.

Rebuilding is far from a done deal, however. The congregation will have about $8 million in insurance if it rebuilds onsite, but the cost of doing that is estimated to be in excess of $11. As might be expected, members have differing views of how First Methodist can best carry its mission forward. Many want to rebuild onsite. Others want to build an entirely new church outside historic downtown Burlington. There are sound reasons for both options.

But I’m pulling for the “old lady.” Iowans have allowed more than their share of the state’s architectural birthright to slip through their fingers as the years have passed.

On another front, The Des Moines Register is reporting this morning that the state’s Vision Iowa Board has committed $545,000 toward restoration of All Saints Church in Stuart, a rare and beautiful 1908 Byzantine-style building destroyed by an arsonist during 1995 --- providing Stuart residents approve a $1.7 million bond issue to help with the project. Total restoration costs are estimated at $2.5 million.

After that church burned, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Des Moines and parish leaders decided restoration was impractical and even pushed to have the ruins flattened and taken away so that they would not become a focal point for congregational disputes.

Eventually, however, the ruins came into the hands of The Project Restore Foundation, committed to restoring the exterior of the building and installing within it a modern cultural center. The Foundation already has restored a small chapel and created a meeting room, restrooms and a kitchen in the least damaged portion of the building.

So here’s another grand old lady that declined to fall down; another restoration to hope for.

These two buildings at the opposite end of the grand spectrum from Pleasanton Methodist Chapel date from an era when it was felt praise could be raised heavenward architecturally, too. There’s not much of that sentiment around any more. Just look.

No comments: