Over the past three weeks I’ve been fighting a quixotic battle to save the last wood-framed neighborhood church in Grand Forks, ND. Built in 1905, this church stands as the last example of the kind of simple, religious architecture common in turn of the century neighborhood throughout the community. Today, the church stands in an endangered neighborhood which still manages to preserve some of the character of the early 20th century streetscape. The church is the second oldest in town.
Last night I attended a meeting of the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission and was generously allowed to speak to members regarding our little church issue. The meeting was interesting for a number of reasons. I’ll admit that it was my first encounter with this kind of organization, and the complexities of the church’s situation were fairly daunting.
The biggest point of emphasis at the meeting – particularly on the part of the staff and chair – was that this building was going to be demolished. That point was non-negotiable. The city owns the property and had allocated money for its “mitigation”. Apparently the most vexing issue involved the lack of parking around the church. This, of course, is beyond ironic as this Google Earth photograph shows the immediately across the street from the little old Trinity Church is a massive, typically half-filled parking lot of United Lutheran. Now I understand that the city does not regard private parking for another building as an alternative to on-site parking, but, the absurdity of the situation almost pushed me to the Allen Iverson point (i.e. we’re here talking about preserving the second oldest church in town and you guys just want to talk about PARKING. It’s PARKING. Not the church, not historic preservation, not the endangered streetscape, but PARKING).
The greatest disappointment of this conversation was the inability of the committee to imagine solutions or alternatives. The word impossible was thrown around a good bit in these conversations.
The only thing we could do, then, was to discuss how the Historic Preservation Commission might deal with the destruction of a significant building. For my part, I urged the Commission to document the building as thoroughly as possible. In fact, I would have liked to see the city, which owns the building and has the money for its demolition, to have offered some part of those resources to document the building before it was demolished. This, apparently, was also impossible, although I am not sure why. It seems to me to be a reasonable expectation for any organization. If a group is going to demolish a historically important building, then they should document this building in as thorough way as possible. In fact, I’d like to think that our civic government would feel all the more compelled to document historic buildings before their destruction.
Fortunately, Emily Wright, the executive director of the Grand Forks Community Land Trust, which will receive this property after the destruction of the church, agreed to provide resources to document the building as thoroughly as time and money will allow. Taking nothing away from Emily’s initiative, the board of directors of this organization show that she likely had significant support and encouragement from a number of board members.
In the end, my experience with the Historic Preservation Council was not altogether positive. They were willing to listen to me and sympathetic, but at the same time, it seems like the will to preserve this church or even to ensure that it was documented thoroughly was fairly modest.