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HOLY CORNERS: Historic churches begin second century with new challenges

Originally published in the West End Word, Nov. 30, 2011.

By Eileen P. Duggan

Over the past decade, a number of buildings in St. Louis’ West End have marked their 100th anniversary, having been built in the flurry of development that surrounded in time and space the 1904 World’s Fair. Among those buildings are the five houses of worship or fellowship that make up “Holy Corners,” the intersection of Kingshighway Boulevard with Washington, McPherson and Westminster avenues.

All five buildings in the neighborhood known as the Holy Corners Historic District were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.

Temple Israel, one of five structures making up the Holy Corners Historic District in the Central West End. Photo by Diana Linsley

Two of the buildings are still owned by the original organization and are still is used for the same purpose. Owners of the other three are currently seeking either buyers or new tenants and investigating other possible uses.

“The quality of these buildings is so outstanding,” said Esley Hamilton, preservation historian at St. Louis County Parks and a lecturer at the College of Architecture at Washington University. “These were built right after the World’s Fair at the high point of St. Louis’ confidence and capability to build buildings like this. They represent some of the best architecture St. Louis has produced.”

ST. JOHN’S METHODIST CHURCH, 5000 Washington Ave. This massive structure on the southwest corner of Kingshighway and Washington was built in 1902. The local congregation dissolved around 2007 due to decreasing participation, and ownership reverted to the state United Methodist Episcopal Church organization, which has put it up for sale. The local congregation had offered space to Metropolitan Community Church of Greater St. Louis, theater groups and other organizations for several years. Since MCC held its last service there in December 2007 and moved to Soulard, the building has been mostly vacant.

Several proposals for restaurant, night club and mixed-use projects have failed. The owner of record has the property under contract through a lease-purchase agreement with Officeport LLC of Kansas City, said Frank Yocum, the leasing agent with Hilliker Corp. Currently under consideration is a proposal by restaurateur and physician Gurpreet Padda, M.D., and his business partner Amy Grimes. They propose to buy the St. John’s building and move their Sanctuaria restaurant there from 4198 Manchester Road. Padda’s bid for a 3 a.m. liquor license is not sitting well with some residents of the single-family homes on Westminster and Washington places.

“St. John’s is one of the most important ecclesiastic buildings in the state,” said William Seibert, a neighborhood resident and preservationist.

FIRST CHURCH OF CHRIST, SCIENTIST, 5000 Westminster Place. This Classical Revival building on the southwest corner of Westminster and Kingshighway was the second Holy Corners church to be built, from 1902–04. It was the first Christian Science church built in St. Louis, during an explosion of growth for the religion, said a Christian Science Reading Room librarian. The building is still owned and used by the same congregation for Sunday and Wednesday services. The congregation’s reading room, which it shares with other St. Louis congregations, is located at 5621 Delmar Blvd. and is open to the public.

TEMPLE ISRAEL, 5001 Washington Ave. Across Washington from St. John’s, this Roman style building with Corinthian columns was constructed in 1907 for the Temple Israel congregation. Temple Israel moved to Creve Coeur in 1962 and sold the building to the Temple of David. The most recent occupant and the current owner of record is the Angelic Temple of Deliverance United in Worship Deliverance Center. Neighbors in the Holy Corners area report that they rarely see any activity at the building, even on Sundays, Seibert said. The ATOD also operates a church in Walnut Park. Pastors Albertina Clay-Downing and André Downing currently are working to rebuild their program on Washington following the recent retirement of Pastor Albert Clay, who led the Pentecostal congregation for more than 30 years.

The Temple Israel congregation built an education building next door at 5011 Washington in 1931. That building, known as Temple Israel House, later housed Metro Classical High School until 2008 and was recently renovated for commercial use. Owned by 5017 Washington LLC, it currently houses the offices of several small businesses.

SECOND BAPTIST CHURCH, 500 N. Kingshighway Blvd. This 1907 multicolor brick Italianate edifice occupies the space between McPherson and Washington Avenues. It has two church structures fronting Kingshighway that are connected by a perpendicular wing and a covered walkway, with a courtyard between. Second Baptist Church owned the property until the congregation moved to St. Louis County in 1955. The property had later lives as the Gospel Assembly Pentecostal Church until the mid-1970s and the Baptist Church of the Good Shepherd, which became the Life Cathedral Word of God Baptist Church in 1982. The Life Cathedral hosted gospel concerts by KIRL-AM Radio in the 1980s and 1990s.

After two attempts dating back to the early 1970s, developer Pete Rothschild bought the building in 2008 for $1.3 million from Life Cathedral’s pastor, Manfred Polk. Shortly afterward, the economy took a turn for the worse, and Rothschild’s plans for an event space in the sanctuary and apartments in the smaller chapel have moved slowly. He has spent about $600,000 with the help of tax credits, making repairs, installing new windows and sprucing up the building, but much work remains to be done, he said. Meanwhile, the building remains vacant while Rothschild negotiates with a promising future tenant.

TUSCAN TEMPLE, 5019 Westminster Place. The six-column façade of this Greek Revival/Doric Order building creates a stunning view for those heading west on McPherson Avenue toward Kingshighway. The property is still held by the original owner, the Tuscan Hall Association and still used by the Tuscan Lodge No. 360, a local order of the Freemasons fraternal association. The Tuscan Lodge brothers meet there twice a month and hold other events frequently. Tuscan Lodge 360, which was chartered in 1870, built the temple, the last of the Holy Corners buildings, in 1907–08.

It’s important to keep such buildings in active use of any kind, not just for their historic value, but for the sake of the buildings themselves, Hamilton said. “Any building suffers from being empty,” he said. In particular, “if a building is closed too tightly, the humidity level rises inside the building and it does all kinds of damage.”

“One of the problems we have now is that the main way of accomplishing restoration is through federal and state tax credits,” Hamilton said. “If you’re not paying taxes, you can’t get tax credits, so that poses a problem for non-profits.” For historic buildings on the National Register, even if they’re purchased by a tax-paying entity, the buyers have to maintain the exterior and certain features of the interiors, such as church sanctuaries.

“Adaptive reuse is something that’s perfectly acceptable,” Hamilton said. And for the massive Holy Corners buildings, “multiple uses may be the best approach.”

Whether occupied or unoccupied, the Holy Corners buildings still hold an impressive presence in the Central West End.

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For more information: http://stlcin.missouri.org/history/structdetail.cfm?Master_ID=1359

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