Former Gainesville Episcopal Church Demolished

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The Diocese of Florida this week moved forward with the demolition of the former St. Michael’s Church in Gainesville, in anticipation of selling the property to a developer and over the objections of the local community. The Gainesville Sun reports that,

Diocese officials accelerated efforts to demolish the church after some residents began pushing to preserve the structure, which would have all but eliminated the chances of selling the highly sought property to developers. The diocese said city residents would’ve “taken control” of the property by possibly labeling it historic.

Neighbors are now taking issue with how the diocese handled its demolition, knowing the topic was to be discussed next week.

On Dec. 4, the Episcopal diocese requested — and was given — a one-month extension from the city to discuss the issue at the next preservation meeting on Jan. 2. That meeting could’ve placed a one-year hold on any demolition, while city officials weighed whether it should be deemed a historic landmark.

… In a news release issued Thursday, diocese officials said the location had fallen into serious disrepair, was structurally unsound and had “far outlived its utility.”

Another issue, the release said, was that the building had become home to rodents and had become an “attractant for unwelcome vagrant residents.”

The Rev. Allison DeFoor of the Jacksonville-based Episcopal Diocese of Florida, said that the homeless deserve better shelter and that the diocese has been committed to that effort.

“Homeless people deserve shelter,” he said. “They don’t deserve a building that has no electricity and rats. They deserve real shelter.”

DeFoor said the real tragedy is how some in the area lost faith and stopped attending the church, though some longtime church members suggested at the time it closed that the diocese had allowed the church to wither by offering little support.

The future of the St. Michael’s site has been under debate since March, when area residents voiced their concerns about the impact which redevelopment would have on traffic and noise levels in the surrounding neighborhood. In November, Gainesville’s Historic Preservation Board nominated the building for inclusion in the Local Register of Historic Places, due in part to its having been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  At that time, local television news reported,

This is the first time Gainesville will evaluate a building for landmark status against the owner’s consent, according to Morris “Marty” Hylton III, 47, the director of UF’s Historic Preservation Program.

“We’re saying that building deserves and is worthy of landmark status and deserves to be a part of any new use for that site,” he said.

The Diocese and the board disagree on adding the structure to the Local Register for Historic Places.

… Emily Stimler, spokeswoman for the Episcopal Diocese of Florida, said the Diocese hasn’t been contacted.

Stimler said the building doesn’t deserve to be added as a landmark and that it’s more economical for the building to come down, as it would require a lot of money to make it functional again.

“It has extensive wood rot, is structurally unsound, has asbestos-related issues and is generally a dilapidated old building that has long since outlived its usefulness or even its anticipated life expectancy,” Stimler said.

Stimler also pointed out the property doesn’t meet any of the city’s criteria for designation on the Local Register of Historic Places.

“The Diocese has fond memories and loving experiences there, but giving it a special historic designation is without merit,” she said.

The diocese’s press release, which is reproduced in full in the Gainesville Sun article linked above, further adds:

“The Episcopal Diocese of Florida is the property owner of the St. Michael’s building and have demolished the building for several reasons,” said Emily Stimler, director of communications for the Diocese of Florida.

She added, “First and foremost, it is vital to recognize that this building has become a community and safety liability, is a neighborhood eyesore, and is an attractant for unwelcome vagrant residents. Further, the Diocese has been planning on tearing down the building for several years because it is structurally unsound, has extensive wood rot, has far outlived its utility, and is far too costly to restore.”

Stimler added the following statements:

“Based on recent actions by a group of citizens, the Diocese accelerated our plans to take downt he building because this group – without even a courtesy notice to the Diocese – attempted to take control of the property by having it improperly listed on the State of Florida’s Master Site File… We felt, therefore, it was in the best interest of the community and the Diocese to take down this neighborhood eyesore and avoid future safety liabilities.”

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Gregory Orloff
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Gregory Orloff

Correction, for the sake of accuracy: The original article in The Gainesville Sun states that this church was designed not by Frank Lloyd Wright, but rather "built in 1974 by Nils M. Schweizer, an associate of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright."

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