A 91-year-old stately brown-brick Downtown church building, which had been a longtime gathering place for African-Americans, has a chance to avoid demolition.
That is, if someone with plenty of money and an idea for reuse of the deteriorating structure comes forward next year.
Located in the Flanner House Homes historic district, the building at 1226 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. was scheduled to be demolished in September to make way for parking for Crispus Attucks Medical Magnet High School, a short distance to the south.
Indianapolis Public Schools purchased the building with the four towering white columns at its entrance — and some adjacent land — in January for $319,000.
However, IPS Superintendent Eugene White and his administration recently accepted a request from Indiana Landmarks to give preservationists until December 2012 to try to save the building by finding a buyer willing to rehabilitate it.
A progress report on the search will be given to White in about six months, said Mark Dollase, Indiana Landmarks’ vice president of preservation services.
“There are few buildings left in the city built by African-Americans for African-Americans,” Dollase said, citing losses due in particular to redevelopment in the heart of the city.
“For that,” he said, “it is an important goal for us to see this building remain standing. We’re thrilled that Dr. White and IPS will work with us on finding a solution to a continued use.”
The agreement puts on hold IPS’ acceptance of a $62,000 bid in July from Denney Excavating to demolish the building.
Dollase described the exterior of the building, built circa 1920 by the Phillips Temple CME Church congregation, as “a great example of early 20th century neoclassical.”
The stained-glass windows, most of the pews and a church organ were among items removed by the relocating Revival Temple Apostolic Church congregation with IPS’ approval, after the district bought the building and two former parking areas from the church, said Steve Young, IPS’ director of facilities management.
Open areas where stained glass was removed now are mostly covered by plastic, and there’s water damage from open roof areas, mainly around a dome above the sanctuary. The building’s main floor, with its white walls and purple trim, was for worship services, and the basement housed offices and classrooms.
“It’s seen better days,” Dollase said of the building’s condition.
Vacant since early summer, the building long served as a hub in the African-American community, including as an anchor in the neighborhood of about 180 Flanner House homes. The neighborhood, along with the church building, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003.
Flanner House, a landmark organization serving African-Americans in Indianapolis since 1898, joined with city officials and a couple of venturesome lending institutions to develop the 180 homes, whose owners contributed a modest down payment and hard work on their construction in the 1950s.
Dollase said the church building’s location in the historic district, plus Indianapolis’ guidelines for maintaining and building upon the city’s existing history in its core, helped provide an argument for at least delaying demolition.
The building offers flexible space for reuse, Dollase said. He said an architectural report is pending to give a status on the building’s structure and estimated cost of rehabilitation.
The Revival Temple church congregation moved out of the building in the early summer, IPS’ Young said. The congregation relocated to the old School 92 building, 6550 E. 42nd St., which was acquired at public auction in June.
Young said the two small parking areas purchased along with the building on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street are on the south and west sides.
The purchase was made with the intent to demolish the building and incorporate the adjacent parking areas to create a large parking lot to serve the Crispus Attucks school, which has need for more spaces for student parking and for those attending activities at the school, Young said.
But, he said, the superintendent recognizes there are preservationist interests and city guidelines toward saving historic buildings from demolition when possible and agreed to give Indiana Landmarks time to find a reuse of the church building.
The Rev. Oliver DeWayne Walker, senior pastor of Phillips Temple for the past 30 years, said that for several decades, the church and neighboring school served as a hub for the African-American community and provided a strong legacy. The church was a meeting place for the NAACP and other organizations devoted to helping the community, he said.
Leon Lewis, 67, and his wife, Delores, joined Phillips Temple CME Church in 1980, when they moved to Indianapolis from Alabama. Their two children were baptized in the church building, which had a seating capacity of 1,800.
The Lewises wrote a history of the church five years ago on the 100th anniversary of the congregation’s founding. In its earliest years, church members worshipped in a small frame building at 528 Drake St., near where the brick Phillips Temple church building would be built.
The Lewises, who have long lived on the city’s Northwestside, said the Phillips Temple congregation relocated from the brick church in 1992, selling it to the Revival church congregation after assessing what it would cost to get the building in compliance with the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act.
Leon Lewis said older church members had difficulty climbing the 23 concrete steps at the main entrance. He said the Phillips Temple congregation moved to a one-story building at 210 E. 34th St., where the Lewises and the rest of the congregation continue to worship.
“It was a beautiful time there,” Delores Lewis, who taught history for many years in IPS middle schools, said of the historic church.
“I taught Sunday school there for a while. It was more or less a family-style church — everyone was a pretty close group.”