Historic churches near Cleveland Clinic campus at center of debate over …
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- The Euclid Avenue Church of God and the Church of the Transfiguration sit empty on Cleveland's former Millionaires' Row, remnants of a heyday when mansions marched east from downtown.
Their congregations have fled. And historic preservationists fear that both churches will disappear, swallowed up by the Cleveland Clinic's appetite for land.
Now the Cleveland Restoration Society, with nine employees and a million-dollar annual budget, is pitting itself against the city's largest employer, a health care giant that says it has no interest in redeveloping dilapidated churches at the edge of its main campus.
The Clinic has offered to pay $500,000 for the land beneath the Euclid Avenue Church of God, northeast of Euclid and East 86th Street. On the other side of Euclid, the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio has put Transfiguration up for sale, for $1.9 million.
Real estate insiders say the sites would make sense for parking or commercial development. The property owners see a chance to unload unwanted buildings to a deep-pocketed buyer. But two city boards have rejected a request from the Euclid Avenue Church of God to demolish its building, a city landmark. And the Restoration Society is trumpeting that the Clinic should use its muscle and money to remake both churches.View full size
"I don't think that anybody thinks they'd be able to do heart surgery in one of these buildings, but there are many other uses," said Kathleen Crowther, the Restoration Society's president.
This tug-of-war comes as Northeast Ohio is grappling with vacant churches across the region. Religious buildings might be the biggest challenge facing the preservation community. Shrinking congregations and migration to the suburbs have left churches empty, or with fewer members -- and less cash.
Local developers have remade churches as condominiums, offices and galleries. Still, the supply of empty buildings eclipses demand. The most likely user of a vacant church is another congregation, but banks are skittish about lending to faith-based groups.
"I think you're always going to run into challenges like the situation with the Clinic," said Melissa Ferchill, a Cleveland developer who remade a historic church for Baldwin-Wallace College's music program and helped industrial design firm Nottingham Spirk transform a former Cleveland Heights church into an innovation center.
"Unfortunately for someone like the Clinic, a church just doesn't repurpose very well," she added. "It just doesn't have spaces that will fit any of their needs very well."
The Clinic would not make executives available to discuss the Euclid Avenue Church of God or Transfiguration. A new master plan for the Clinic's main campus does not include the churches. But it's clear the Clinic, which buys and holds property for development, is interested in the land.
"That's not something that's in our plans, to redevelop the property," said Eileen Sheil, a Clinic spokeswoman. "They're not our churches."
Cash-strapped church sees Clinic as a savior
Built between 1890 and 1891, the Euclid Avenue Church of God is a small stone building designed by Sidney Badgley, a Canadian architect who crafted plans for several local churches. The Restoration Society believes one of the building's stained glass windows was designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany's studio. Inside the sanctuary, the walls are stained and the carpet feels uneven underfoot. In the bell tower, the plaster is crumbling and the floor has been replaced with plywood.
In the late 1980s and early '90s, the congregation amassed a building fund and made repairs, members say. That effort stalled as pastors changed and the church's leaders considered selling. The Clinic has expressed interest in the 0.16-acre property before, said members of the church's board of trustees. But, they stressed, the Clinic never initiated the conversations.View full size
"We went to them, asking them to help us," said the Rev. Kevin Goode, the church's current pastor. "We see them as our savior more than anything else."
In June, the church asked the Cleveland Landmarks Commission for permission to knock down the building. The commission designates historically or architecturally significant buildings as city landmarks, a status that brings added scrutiny to demolition requests.
The Landmarks Commission turned down the congregation's request. In September, the city's Board of Zoning Appeals upheld that decision. Now the cash-strapped church is appealing, in a lawsuit filed in Cuyahoga County.
Meanwhile, Goode has moved his ministry out of Cleveland, merging his 80-person congregation with a small one at the Middleburg Heights Church of God on West 130th Street. He hopes to use the $500,000 from a potential sale to the Clinic to renovate the church's new home.
The hospital system is helping the church pay for its legal battle, Goode said. Sheil said she could not confirm that. The congregation's lawyer, Kenneth Fisher, would not say who is paying him.
Goode says the Euclid Avenue property is not safe. An engineering report predicts that a complete redevelopment would cost $1.5 million. Cleveland's building department has no open citations on the Euclid Avenue Church of God building, according to public records. A city spokeswoman said officials would not discuss the property because of the congregation's lawsuit.
"My building and Transfiguration, they're not worth crap," Goode said. "They're not worth two dead flies smashed."
Several longtime members of the congregation disagree. They're skeptical about the pastor's pronouncements, and they want multiple opinions on potential redevelopment costs.
"I didn't have enough information," said Ulysses McNair, a board member who voted against selling the property. "I also have a thing about being a party to tearing down God's house. I said that to them. And they were saying to me, 'Well, God's people make up the house.' "
Restoration Society fears for city landmarks
The Restoration Society believes either building could be reused for office space, a restaurant or a library. But the preservation group hasn't found other potential buyers for the Euclid Avenue Church of God.
In separate interviews, Crowther and Goode pointed fingers at each other.
Goode: "They [The Cleveland Restoration Society] blow a lot of hot air, but they're not putting any money on the table."
Crowther: "Our job is not to bail out every deteriorated landmark in the city. The city has laws that govern how you deal with properties in protected zones, and this is a protected property."
Crowther criticized the congregation for approaching the Clinic, rather than putting the church on the market. Yet she agrees that the Clinic is the logical buyer -- but that the institution should pay more attention to historic preservation, instead of land-banking.
The Clinic demolished the old Hathaway Brown School building in Cleveland and the former Ohio College of Podiatric Medicine building nearby. But the hospital has preserved two historic mansions on Euclid Avenue.
And the institution's new master plan calls for reusing the Cleveland Play House complex, at 8500 Euclid Ave., as an education center. Preservationists have worried about the building since the Clinic bought it in 2010.
"We care about historic preservation," said Sheil, the Clinic spokeswoman. "What we try to do with each of the properties that are on our land, that are historic landmarks, is we try to do what's best for the community and the Cleveland Clinic."
Sheil said she could not confirm whether the Clinic is looking at Transfiguration, which was listed for sale last month. Built in the early 1900s, the church stands on 0.83 acres just north of a Clinic parking garage.
The Gothic Revival church once offered programs serving up to 1,900 families a month, according to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. More recently, it was home to a congregation of just 40 to 45 people.
One of several churches that broke off from the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio, the congregation at Transfiguration asserted that it owned its building. But the diocese claimed ownership of the property through a trust. A Cuyahoga County judge sided with the diocese in September.
Under the leadership of an Anglican priest, the congregation recently leased a former Methodist church on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. The Rev. Constance Harris said some members were reluctant to leave Euclid Avenue, but they couldn't afford to maintain a historic building.
"There's been a problem with the roof for years," Harris said. "The plaster falls down. Over the one kind of cloistered aisle, it rains inside if it rains outside."
Citing safety concerns, diocese officials would not let a Plain Dealer reporter tour Transfiguration. The Rev. Brad Purdom, canon for congregations, noted that the diocese is renovating some properties, including the historic St. John's Episcopal Church in Ohio City.
But, he said, the diocese cannot restore every building.
"It breaks our hearts," Purdom said. "But at the end of the day, you have to make some choices about how you're going to spend the limited resources that you do have."
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