Daily Journal of Commerce

Historic church sanctuary will be saved, but new use unknown
Journal Staff Reporter

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Photo by Steve Poole

The fate of the 99-year-old Seattle First United Methodist Church, known for its red terra-cotta dome, has been debated for more than 20 years.

A plan to preserve the Seattle First United Methodist Church at 811 Fifth Ave. includes building a 40-story office tower and a 7,500-square-foot expansion for the neighboring Rainier Club.

A massing study for the tower by architect Zimmer Gunsul Frasca was unveiled at a press briefing on Wednesday.

The announcement ends more than 20 years of debate over the fate of the 99-year-old church, known for its red terra-cotta dome.

The congregation has sought to sell the site, even if the structure got demolished as a result. The building needs expensive improvements and offers little in the way of parking or access for the elderly or handicapped.

An attempt by the Seattle Landmarks Board to designate the building as a historic landmark was struck down by the state Supreme Court in 1996. In 2005, after a group called Friends of First United Methodist Church challenged an environmental impact statement for a different office tower proposal, the state Court of Appeals ruled that the church can be demolished.

Several developers have proposed projects for the site in recent years, including Sabey Corp. and Martin Selig. But preservation groups, with help from public officials, have tried to keep the church from being razed.

“We needed to use every tool in our preservation tool kit because there wasn't a simple solution,” said David Brown, executive vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

An 11th-hour plan, proposed by developer Nitze-Stagen, would preserve the Beaux Arts-style sanctuary, which sits on the northeast corner of the block, at Fifth and Marion.

An 1950s addition on the southeast corner of the block would be torn down to make way for the office tower.

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Rendering by ZGF

Zimmer Gunsul Frasca is doing final concept design for a 40-story office tower on the site.

Nitze-Stagen President Kevin Daniels said he doesn't know yet how the sanctuary will be used.

“We will find something that protects its sanctity and opens it up to broader public use,” he said.

Daniels added that he likes the idea of turning it into a performance hall that could be used by Seattle Public Schools, but he hasn't approached the school district.

Daniels said Nitze-Stagen will seek historic landmark status for the sanctuary. Improvements to the building, including exterior modifications, would go through the usual approval processes.

The National Trust Community Investment Corp., the National Trust for Historic Preservation's for-profit subsidiary, plans to provide up to $1 million in tax credits for the preservation project.

The office tower would have 670,000 square feet of commercial space and some street-level retail. Underground parking may be shared with the Rainier Club.

Daniels said no tenants have signed leases yet, but the site has many selling points, including good views, access to the Rainier Club, and the ability to reach neighboring buildings such as the Columbia Center and the Seattle Municipal Tower through underground walkways.

The tower is slated for completion in 2010. Turner Construction Co. is the general contractor. The structural engineer will be announced on June 8. Architectural plans by Zimmer Gunsul Frasca are in final concept design.

Details of Nitze-Stagen's purchase and sale agreement with the church won't be public for several months, Daniels said.

The First United Methodist congregation is pursuing a new site for a church in Belltown. Sale of the sanctuary will help construction of a new church. Grants from the city of Seattle and King County will fund $1 million in tenant improvements for social service groups that will be located in the new church.

Kurt Armbruster, co-chair of the church's building advisory board, said the church plans to begin construction by September 2008 and move the following spring.