[Ed.note: This is the first in our long-awaited and award-winning series on saving the former United Methodist Church in downtown Murfreesboro. Like an area jewelry store, this blog has been voted best in its field for five straight years.]
“In my opinion the trees are just as valuable to the land as the (historic Springfield) house is. I could go tear down the house and build another one that looks just like it. Not that I’m gonna do that. … I feel very strongly about keeping the trees.” — Charles Haskett, a developer who plans to build luxury apartments off Manson Pike.
“Mayor aims to ‘protect our downtown’.” — Headline from the Murfreesboro Post. The headline makes one believe that the mayor will fight to save the former Methodist Church at East College and North Church Streets. Three cheers for the mayor!
We take it back
On second thought, make it a half cheer instead. What started out sounding like a noble crusade to protect the downtown against all odds turns out to be a quiet walk in the park. The mayor isn’t talking about preserving the historic United Methodist Church on E. College St. at all, only the bell tower.
That puts him in line with a city staff report and with the view of a leading developer, who is interested in acquiring the property. In other words, the mayor is merely expressing the conventional wisdom.
Gaspchoke Plaudits for Smotherman
We applaud Councilman Eddie Smotherman, who did more to justify the Post’s headline about protecting the downtown.
“There is a significant landmark (the church) on this property,” he said. “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.”
In a conversation later, however, Smotherman said the church must demonstrate an economic use if it is to survive and not become an expensive white elephant for the city.
Economic reason for saving the church
We agree in part. A restored church building should find some use that permits it to break even, so keeping it isn’t a burden to the city. But it should not have to be profitable, like some fake historic drycleaner next to the historic bell tower in some fake historic commercial center.
All we are asking is that the possibility of saving the church at least be part of the discussion. Right now it is being written off, and saving the bell tower is being used as a sop to quiet everyone down.
Let’s use old landmarks to break up the tedium of modern box buildings
Our interest lies in saving the outside of the church and putting the inside to the best possible use we can find for it. There is nothing wrong with modern, boxy buildings — as long as older ones are mixed in. The older architecture rests the eyes — much as white space does in a good layout.
Instead of insisting that the church make money, we’d be satisfied if it broke even. The church could earn its keep if it provides economic or other benefits to the city.
We’re told young millennials dig a thriving art scene
For example, we keep hearing from the city’s planning consultant that we have to attract young urban professionals since the best jobs now follow talented people. Instead of workers following companies, the better companies go where the best workers are.
And those workers want to locate in cities with a lot of night life and interesting activities. In other words. Murfreesboro must become more interesting if it is to have a hose in this race to attract talented workers.
A cultural arts corridor
Last November, city planners proposed a study for a Highland Avenue cultural arts corridor that would link the downtown area to the MTSU campus.The district would be bordered roughly by 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.
The area was tentatively titled a cultural district because it contains the Oakland House, the Murfreesboro Little Theater, the Rutherford County Historical Society, and the old hospital building, which MTSU has acquired.
Aren’t there better uses than a lot of marginal artists’ studios?
Councilman Rick LaLance bristled at the title. The implication was that a bunch of atists’ studios might not be the highest and best use for land in this study area. But what if the art studios were all packed in one place — in a restored church at N. Church and E. College Streets? Wouldn’t this give us the best of both worlds?
In effect, the church could pay its own way if it housed an artists colony, and those artists became a lure for the young urban professionals the city seeks to attract. This plan would give the city the benefit of an arts district without taking up that much land.
It’s working in Indianapolis
That is what has happened in Indianapolis, where a former Presbyterian church that dates from 1903 was converted around 2,000 into an arts center. Fortunately, Indianapolis has a wealthy patron of the arts Jeremy Efroymson, who acquired the church and turned it into a place where community artists could rent studio space cheaply.
The Indianapolis church had been abandoned for several years when Efroymson took it over. He says now that if he had known what he was getting into he never would have started the project. Water was pouring through one section of the roof, he adds, and clothing from a thrift store the church had operated there was piled on the pews and was soaking wet.
Cleaning up with one hand and holding your nose with the other
“The place smelled so bad you couldn’t go in there for more than 60 second without holding your nose,” he said. “We took about 50 dumpsters of trash out of there. If I hadn’t done what I did at least a part of this building would have collapsed. As I look back, I am proud of what I did.”
The (Benjamin) Harrison Center for the Arts (named after the former president who belonged to the church) offers artists 24 studios in various shapes and sizes on three floors. Because the rents are reasonable, there is a constant demand for space.
First Friday themed events
To supplement its rental income, the center also promotes itself as a spot for wedding receptions, banquets, music events, and corporate retreats. The center has exhibits that change every month in its 1,100 square foot main gallery and hosts monthly themed events called “First Friday”. The theme this month is appropriately “Follow Your Heart”.
The center makes a serious effort to contribute to the surrounding community. One of its smaller galleries is dedicated solely to art about the city of Indianapolis.
Efroymson is vice president of the Efroymson Family fund, which has an endowment of $127 million. The fund has given more than $60 million to 950 non-profit organizations since 1998 in areas anging from environmntal protection to historical preservation.
But can the center stand on its own?
Although it no longer owns the building, the fund continues to contribute to the arts center. While few would deny the contribution the arts center makes to the city, the question of whether it can stand on its own has not yet been answered. Efroymson brushes off questions about the center’s future, saying, in effect, nothing lasts forever.
My goal for our church would be to save it as an attractive feature of the city’s skyline and allow it to contribute to its upkeep without adopting an ambitious and expensive program like the one in Indianapolis.
Oh yes. The link between the mayor’s outlook and Mr. Haskett’s is that neither viewpoint respects history.
A replica of a historic mansion misses the point. The charm of the Oaklands Mansion is that when you look around the home you are viewing the lives of people who have gone before you as you look at the same things they did. A fake historical shopping center with a fake historical commercial center designed to blend in with a historical bell tower is like a cubic zirconia.
In future posts, we will examine other possible uses for the church. My assumption in this post is that an arts district would be a draw for millennials. Putting the artists in the church would leave the rest of the area open to higher and more economic uses.