Last-minute efforts to save historic Cedar Rapids church may be futile

But new city requirement could eliminate need for parking spaces for PCI clinic

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Lowering the required number of parking spaces in the city’s medical district won’t necessarily spare a historic church from the wrecking ball, a fate a renowned historian calls ironic.

First Christian Church, 840 Third Ave. SE, will be demolished once a 60-day hold placed on the permit by the Cedar Rapids Historic Preservation Commission expires March 12, said representatives of St. Luke’s Hospital, which bought the property for parking for the new Physicians’ Clinic of Iowa medical pavilion.

St. Luke’s paid $695,000 for the church in 2010, according to the city assessor’s website.

Spokeswoman Sarah Corizzo said hospital officials were not aware of pending changes to parking requirements.

Demolition of the church, which is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, will make way for a 40-space parking lot, said Vern Zakostelecky, the city’s land development coordinator.

The City Council will consider the first reading Tuesday of an ordinance to change parking standards for medical buildings from seven spaces per 1,000-square-feet of building space to 4.5.

PCI, which will have 1,024 parking spots for its 221,144-square-foot building at Second Avenue and 10th Street SE, previously received a variance that calls for five spaces per 1,000-square-feet.

“Based on the 4.5, they might not need those spaces,” Zakostelecky said.

Mike Sundall, CEO of PCI, said he had not heard of any proposal to save the church.

Sundall said losing 40 spaces would make parking “really, really tight.”

“Nobody’s talked to us about options,” he said.

PCI is leasing the land from St. Luke’s, and any changes would require legal fees that Sundall said PCI is not willing to bear.

A public hearing on the parking change is scheduled at Tuesday’s 4 p.m. meeting in the Council Chambers at City Hall, 101 First St. SE. The second and third readings could be heard March 13.

Tim Samuelson, cultural historian for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and expert on the work of architect Louis Sullivan, said he recently learned that Sullivan was a consulting architect on the church, dedicated in 1913.

“To my knowledge, this information was previously unknown to researchers of this important American architect, but the surprise is certainly dampened by the fact that its discovery is accompanied with a proposed demolition,” Samuelson wrote in an email. “It’s rare to suddenly find a new project appear. How ironic to have it disappear just as suddenly, and without the opportunity to reveal its story.”

Louis Millet, who designed the church’s stained-glass windows, was Sullivan’s collaborator, which gives further evidence of Sullivan’s participation, he said.

Samuelson noted that Sullivan is considered an internationally-respected architect and pioneer of modern architecture.

“Because Sullivan’s approach differed from the popular architectural styles and conventions of his era, his executed projects were relatively few,” he wrote. “And the number has become significantly smaller due to demolitions and natural disaster.”

Samuelson, curator of the “Louis Sullivan’s Idea” exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center, noted that the Sullivan-designed Wells Fargo Bank, 101 Third Ave. SW, damaged by the Floods of 2008, was prominently featured in the exhibit.

City Council member Monica Vernon said the church was the impetus for city staff to look at other parking in other communities and recommend changes for Cedar Rapids.

Because the church is privately owned, the council has no control over its future, she said, adding that the city doesn’t have money to purchase historic properties.

The church caught the eye of Christopher Wand, a Cedar Rapids architect who serves on Dubuque’s Historic Preservation Commission and has asked Cedar Rapids officials about options to save the church.

Dubuque provides some limited funding for buildings listed as individual landmarks, he said.

Wand called the church’s stained glass windows “phenomenal.”

Those windows, the entrance columns and church’s skylight will be removed and kept in storage with the intent to keep them in Cedar Rapids, Corizzo said.

A mansion-turned-apartment next to the church also will be demolished this spring, she said.

“No plans have been made for the apartment that will come down but it needs to be demolished because the interior has become unsafe,” she wrote in an email. “St. Luke’s is landlocked. When properties come for sale near the hospital and within the Medical District, we investigate purchasing. When we do purchase private property it is typically for future development.”

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