Wednesday, May 30, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Deal preserves downtown church; congregation will move

Seattle Times staff reporter

New home for Seattle's oldest downtown church

1853: About 30 worshippers attend First United Methodist's first service in log cabin.

1855: First United dedicates city's first church at Second Avenue and Columbia Street.

1887: Congregation sells property and builds new church at Marion Street and Third Avenue.

1908-1910: Congregation moves to Marion and Fifth Avenue and builds third church.

1985: Against wishes of church leadership, City of Seattle's Landmarks Board approves designation of church as landmark.

1996: State Supreme Court upholds church's claim that city's action impairs First Amendment right to practice religion freely by restricting its ability to make money to support its mission. Ruling marks end of era for landmark designations for historic religious properties in Seattle.

2004: Preservationists challenge adequacy of city's environmental impact statement.

2005: Appeals court rejects their claims.

March 2006: Church leadership negotiates deal with developer Martin Selig to demolish property and build a skyscraper.

July 2006: Two other developers, Sabey Corp. and Nitze-Stagen, approach church with proposals to preserve sanctuary and build new church for congregation in Belltown.

May 30, 2007: Church announces deal with Nitze-Stagen to preserve sanctuary and build new church.

Sources: Seattle Times archives, Historic Seattle

— Sanjay Bhatt

The century-old sanctuary of First United Methodist Church will be nominated for landmark status and its congregation will find a new home north of Belltown once a deal with developer Nitze-Stagen closes later this year, officials on both sides announced this morning.

Under terms of the deal, church officials said the city and King County would each provide $500,000 to support the church's services to the homeless, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation would assist Nitze-Stagen with obtaining a $1 million federal tax credit.

The price tag for the property sale wasn't disclosed.

The deal ends a decades-long drama over the last historic church in downtown Seattle. Built from 1908 to 1910, the sanctuary takes up a quarter block at Fifth Avenue and Marion Street; the church also owns an annex next door that will be demolished.

Kevin Daniels, president of Nitze-Stagen, said he hopes to complete construction of a 40-story office tower at the annex site by late summer 2010. He will start looking for an anchor tenant now, he said.

Daniels said he didn't know yet how the historic sanctuary would be used, but said the federal tax credit requires his firm to provide opportunities to low-income families and adults.

"We will figure out something that protects its sanctity but also opens it up to public use," Daniels said.

Meanwhile, First United hopes to start construction of its new home in Belltown by September 2008 and move in about a year later. It has secured half the property it needs and is close to signing a deal for the other half, said Kurt Armbruster, who co-chairs the church's building advisory board.

The battle over the church's fate riveted community leaders, established a legal precedent in the separation between church and state and nearly ended in demolition of the terra-cotta-domed sanctuary.

Since dedicating its first church in 1855, First United has moved twice. Like other congregations in cities across the nation, First United has struggled to survive as church membership faded.

The shrinking congregation, the city's oldest, has maintained that it needs to leverage the value of its downtown property to keep its ministry going. Its membership, now at about 600, has dwindled from a peak of 5,800 from 1945 to 1963.

Although preservationists like to call the sanctuary a landmark, it has not been subject to legal protections.

After the city designated the sanctuary a landmark in 1985, First United took the city to court and ultimately won a state Supreme Court decision in 1996 that declared all religious buildings exempt from landmark status.

Daniels said that once the ownership of the sanctuary is transferred to Nitze-Stagen, it will renominate it for landmark status, protecting it from future demolition proposals.

Tensions over landmarks are nothing new, but the National Trust for Historic Preservation has been concerned with the sheer number of historic urban houses of worship that are being demolished or threatened with demolition.

Anthea Hartig, head of the Trust's Western regional office in San Francisco, said the conflict arises from a clash among cherished principles reaching back to the Founding Fathers — the rights of private property owners, religious freedom and the common good.

"From the start you do have competing goods," Hartig said in an interview. The National Trust has voiced its concern for the Seattle sanctuary on and off since the mid-1980s. "In the end, we're so thrilled we've made it to this point."

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company


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