“Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them.”  — Jane Jacobs.

"Has the world slipped off its orbit?"
“Has the world slipped off its orbit?”

Judging from last week’s council meeting it is likely that the former United Methodist Church behind Franklin Synergy Bank on East College St. has a date with the wrecking ball. For once, councilman Eddie Smotherman and this site agree on something: The loss of this landmark would be a tragedy.

As things stand now, only the church’s  picturesque bell tower might be saved in redeveloping the block between North Church, East Lytle, North Spring and East College Streets.

It would be a shame to write off the church building, which dates from 1888, without  at least exploring every option to save it.

The city is making a bid to buy the 1.87 acre  block

Former church lends character to downtown block
Former church lends character to downtown block

The issue about the church’s fate came up last week when the council approved making a $1.5 million offer for the block the church sits on. The owner, Franklin Synergy bank, is leaving the area for a new building it is constructing on Medical Center Parkway. The city owns a 1-acre parking lot on the block, and the bank owns the balance.

In proposing the purchase, City Manager Rob Lyons argued that the block becomes more attractive for development if the bank property and the city parking lot are all under a single owner.

Next to massive Judicial Center project

Lyons added that it is important that the city have a say in how the block develops since it is adjacent to where the $73 million Rutherford County Judicial Center will be built. If the city owns the entire First Synergy block it can decide which development proposals to accept and which to reject as inconsistent with its vision.

Throwing cold water on saving the church

A city report offered little encouragement for those who want to save the church. It stated:  “There are practical challenges since the sanctuary has a sloped concrete floor.”

"If Jones knew anything about construction he would not have been a journalist.
“If Jones knew anything about construction he would not have been a journalist.

But perhaps the church could be saved by scaling down the restoration goals. Instead of restoring it to its original condition, like the Oaklands Mansion, the city could keep the outside as is and modernize the church interior to make it commercially attractive. For instance, it should not be that hard to build a level wood floor on top of the existing,  concrete floor.

Here are the pros and cons of the debate about the bank, starting with the cons.

  1. The Adam Smith argument

The free market should determine what happens there. We owe much of our success in this country to the free market, which should decide what happens. But the free market is not a religious principle or scientific law. Where we want a different outcome, we overrule it. Paris would not have the charm it does if French officials had not decided to limit the height of buildings in the city proper. If the free market had ruled,  the Oaklands Mansion site would now host luxury condos, and the historic house would be gone. If the free market always knows best, there is no need for a 2035 plan or a city planning staff.

2. Restoring a costly white elephant

Church could become restaurant, artists stusio or performance center
Church could become restaurant, artists studio or performance center

Restoring the building would be too costly, and it is not a proper function of government anyway. This question can only be answered after the city has looked at

what needs to be done and come up with a cost estimate  While the building can’t get a  National Historical designation, there may be grants available to save it, or money could be raised locally as it was for the Oaklands Mansion..

It’s true that old churches like this one are more costly to maintain than modern buildings. If an economic use can be found for the church, however, upkeep no longer would be a burden.

Now let’s look at reasons for saving the church. These have to be overwhelming to overrule the idea that these decisions are best made by the free market.

  1. buildings provide character

Jane Jacobs was right. The city needs old buildings, such as this one, in a mix with new construction. Old buildings make the city’s steetscape more interesting by relieving the monotony of streets filled with one modern box after another.

2. Help mom and pop businesses

The city’s 2035 planning study stresses the need to help local businesses as opposed to chain stores. The latter drain dollars from the local economy while the mom and pops plow much of what they earn back into the local economy.

Jacobs argued that local businesses need old buildings with their lower rents if they are to survive.

“If a city area has only new buildings, the enterprises that can exist there are automatically limited to those that can support the high costs of new construction,” she wrote.

“Chain stores, chain restaurants and banks go into new construction. … Hundreds of ordinary enterprises, necessary to the safety and public life of streets and neighborhoods … can make out successfully in old buildings, but are inexorably slain by the high overhead of new construction.” — Jane Jacobs

3. Attract white-collar, high-paying jobs

If the city is serious about attracting talented millenials,  the key to getting businesses with good jobs, it is going to have to make the downtown area more exciting than it is now. Like Franklin, his city has to capitalize on its history, and the former Methodist church is part of that history.

Councilman Eddie Smotherman made a passionate argument for saving the church as last week’s council meeting

Where Councilman LaLance was married.
Where Councilman LaLance was married.

“There is a significant landmark on this property. For me. it means as much to the city as Big Ben does to London or the Coliseum to Rome. …  It may not have a significant event like the Oaklands Mansion, but it is a significant historical presence. It plays a role in the vitality and character of Murfreesboro.”

Smotherman pointed out how few old buildings remain here, adding that many of us may miss the old church once it’s gone, as some regret the passing of the James K. Polk Hotel on East Main Street. The hotel, which opened in 1929, was razed in 1977 to make way for the SunTrust bank building — a nice box as modern buildings go.

You have to lure talented workers by making your city exciting

A major theme of the Mufreesboro 2035 planning study is that workers no longer follow jobs — at least the most talented and sought after knowledge workers don’t. Now, the companies with the best jobs locate where those talented workers want to live. And they want to live in vibrant communities with energy and interesting things happening at night after work. It’s hard to argue that the city’s downtown area jumps at night.

A restored Methodist church could change that image. Here are some examples of possible uses:

An upscale restaurant?

As far as I can tell, Murfreesboro has no upscale restaurant. It is possible, that all or part of the church could become one. Matawan, N.J., had a similar issue. Trinity Episcopal Church leaders felt their church had outgrown its building on Main Street and moved to new quarters. The building became “The Church on Main Street”, an Italian restaurant. I ate there, and the food was excellent. It is now under new ownership, however, and gets mixed reviews.

A performance center?

The church could provide an auditorium for live music and drama. Princeton uses its huge Gothic church on its campus for performances. In the early 1990s I attended a Dave Brubeck concert in this huge building..

The focus of a cultural district?

The council has authorized a detailed study of how to redevelop the area between East Clark Boulevard on the north, Northwest Broad Street on the west, East College Street on the south and Middle Tennessee Boulevard on the East. It is premature to raze the church without learning if the study envisions a place for the venerable building.

One idea has been to make a cultural arts corridor between the old city downtown and the MTSU. Councilman Rick LaLance, however, bristled at the idea of declaring the area a cultural arts district. He worried that it might box in property owners at something less than the best and highest use of their land. By the end of his comments, city planners were running away from the cultural arts title.

Yet, a cultural arts district could provide a needed link between the downtown and MTSU, which has to be a part of the city’s redevelopment. It might connect an innovation center in the bottoms area to the college campus to the east, for example.

A win-win proposition

By focusing all artistic efforts in the district on the church, the city could have the best of both worlds. An active arts district at the church would bring in foot traffic and attract millenials. On the other hand, the rest of the area could develop along free-market lines.

There are numerous examples of churches that have been saved by making them into workplaces for artists.

A home for the arts in Indianapolis

The Harrison Center for the Arts in Indianapolis is housed in a Presbyterian church building that was constructed  in 1903. .Sometime before 1970, the Presbyterians abandoned the building for new quarters. By 1999  the church was in such disrepair it was on the verge of collapse.  In 2000, local philanthropist Jeremy Efroymson bought the building to restore  it as a place for artists to work and to display their creations.  Now it is a thriving building that provides a home to visual as well as performing artists.

An active part of the Greenwich Village community

By 2000, the Judson Memorial Church in New York’s Greenwich Village, had fallen on hard times. It had to find tenants to survive. Today it houses The Gym” theater, a Sikh film agency, an experimental dance school, the West Village Chorale, nonprofits serving undocumented immigrants,  and congregations for Korean immigrants, gay Catholics, the homeless and people in recovery.

Another Possibility

The city’s planning consultant has suggested that the city could work with MTSU’s Department of Recording Industry to promote recording-industry startups. It notes that part of Nashville’s music business is relocating to other areas where land is cheaper. The consultant suggests that Murfreesboro could become a center for post production work on recordings made in Nashville. Thus the church might house studios for processing Nashville recordings, or rooms for music marketing, instrument making or cover art.

The hub of an innovation district?

If the city does start an innovation district, the  church could be a smaller version of what the Edney building is for Chattanooga’s district. It could house offices for incubators and accelerators, serve as a hub for the district where ideas circulate and provide working spaces for start-ups.

The church’s fate hear lies in the hands of a planning consultant

The detailed planning study of the area will be done by Ragan Smith Associates, a Nashville-based consulting firm. One of its tasks will be to assess support for a cultural anchor in the district, hopefully with the former Methodist church in mind.

Will the bank please step forward

In a Murfreesboro Post article last week, Franklin Synergy President Lee Moss was quoted as saying: “We would love to see the sanctuary saved. That’s got to be ultimately up to whoever acquires the site.”

Perhaps Moss’ bank could contribute some seed money toward restoring the church. It would help the bank show its involvement in Murfreesboro, on the one hand, and might give it naming rights if an arts  center eventually emerges at the former church.

  • Greg Tucker, Rutherford County historian, has written a piece on the history of the church, which will appear in the Murfreesboro Post. We will link to that story.
  • If you favor saving the church here are email addresses you can contact to express your views:
  • Rob Lyons, city manager: rlyons@murfreesborotn.gov
  • Shane McFarland, mayor: smcfarland@murfreesborotn.gov
  • Ron Washington, city council member: ron.washington@comcast.net
  • Doug Young, vice mayor: dyoung@murfreesborotn.gov
  • Eddie Smotherman, city council member: esmotherman@murfreesborotn.gov
  • Rick LaLance, city council member: rlalance@murfreesborotn.gov
  • Bill Shacklett. city council member: bshacklett@murfreesborotn.gov