In Cleveland, a Battle over Unwanted Churches


CLEVELAND (RNS) The Euclid Avenue Church of God and the former Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration sit empty on this city'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, too, swallowed up by the nearby Cleveland Clinic's appetite for land.

The churches say they have no money (or congregations) for upkeep, and the world-renowned hospital says it has no need for churches. Which begs the question: what happens to architectural gems that no one can afford to maintain?

The Cleveland Restoration Society is pitting itself against the health care giant -- the city's largest employer -- over the fate of the dilapidated churches at the edge of the hospital's main campus.

The clinic has offered to pay $500,000 for the land beneath the landmarked Euclid Avenue Church of God; the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio has put the neighboring Transfiguration up for sale for $1.9 million.

Real estate insiders say both 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.

"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.

The tug-of-war comes as Northeast Ohio is grappling with a slew of vacant churches. 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.

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 often 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 has helped repurpose several churches for new uses.

"Unfortunately for someone like the clinic, a church just doesn't repurpose very well. It just doesn't have spaces that will fit any of their needs very well."

The clinic would not make executives available to discuss either site and 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."

Built between 1890 and 1891, the Euclid Avenue Church of God is a small stone building; preservationists believe 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.

"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. It was denied.

As the cash-strapped church seeks an appeal, Goode has moved his ministry out of Cleveland, hoping to use the $500,000 from a potential sale to the clinic to renovate the church's new home.

Goode said a complete overhaul would cost $1.5 million. "My building and Transfiguration, they're not worth crap," Goode said. "They're not worth two dead flies smashed."

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.

"Our job is not to bail out every deteriorated landmark in the city," said Crowther, the preservationist. "The city has laws that govern how you deal with properties in protected zones, and this is a protected property."

Transfiguration was built in the early 1900s and sits just north of a Cleveland Clinic parking garage. The Gothic Revival church was home to one of several congregations that broke off from the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio.

The breakaway congregation recently moved to another location after a judge later decided the property must stay with the diocese. The building badly needs repairs, and a diocesan official, the Rev. Brad Purdom, 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."

(Michelle Jarboe McFee writes for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.)

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