Thursday, May 31, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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How historic downtown sanctuary was saved

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, 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: An appeals court rejects the preservationists' claims.

March 2006: Church leaders negotiate deal with developer Martin Selig to demolish building 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

Compiled by Sanjay Bhatt

On a hot Tuesday night last summer, King County Executive Ron Sims and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels stood together in a small, crowded parlor at First United Methodist Church and made a heartfelt pitch to a skeptical audience.

Along with King County Councilman Dow Constantine and Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis, the area's top two political leaders implored more than two dozen church leaders — who recently had gotten approval from their congregation to replace the iconic 1910 sanctuary with a skyscraper — to continue trying to save it.

Years of bitter litigation between the church and the city, and several failed development plans, had made some church leaders skeptical of a last-minute proposal from developer Kevin Daniels that would save the sanctuary.

"To me it was the turning point," Daniels said in an interview. "It was almost like a revival session. ... It broadened our horizons on the opportunities, how to talk to each other versus past each other."

Kurt Armbruster, co-chairman of the church's building advisory board, said the skeptical church leaders were convinced at the meeting that the city and county truly wanted to be their partners — and no longer their adversaries.

"After that meeting, almost everyone had a picture of what a win-win solution would look like, that it could happen," Armbruster said. "It was worth sweating out the details to make something happen."

A deal did materialize — the details of which became public Wednesday: Daniels' firm, Nitze-Stagen, will acquire the church's property at 811 Fifth Ave. and two parcels in the Belltown area for $32 million. Of that purchase price, the National Trust for Historic Preservation is contributing $1 million and the city and county are each providing $500,000 through contracts with the church for services to the homeless.

Built from 1908 to 1910, the sanctuary takes up a quarter-block at Fifth Avenue and Marion Street. As part of the deal, the sanctuary will be saved but an annex next to it will be torn down to make room for a 40-story office tower, which Daniels said he hopes to complete by late summer 2010.

Meanwhile, a new church building, one more suitable to the congregation's needs, will be built by 2009 on the Belltown property.

A ministry of meals

The city's oldest congregation — it held its first service in 1853 — 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.

The church's ministry is broadly felt downtown: Each year First United and its nonprofit tenants serve 60,000 meals to the poor and provide space for groups that help alcoholics and addicts.

The battle over First United'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.

Preservation supporters suffered a major defeat in 1996: The Washington State Supreme Court upheld First United's claim to develop its property, saying it trumped the city's authority to declare the structure a historic landmark. The court's ruling, based on the First Amendment right to religious freedom, essentially put houses of worship off limits to historic preservationists.

For preservationists, the most important element in the deal announced Wednesday is that Nitze-Stagen will renominate the sanctuary for landmark status, protecting it from future demolition proposals.

For the congregation, the most important element is that Nitze-Stagen will build it a new church at Second Avenue and Denny Way by September 2009. The developer already has acquired one parcel there. The other parcel is owned by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 6, which intends to sell its property to Nitze-Stagen, said Sergio Salinas, the local's president.

Combined, the nearly 29,000 square feet of space will give the church room to carry on its ministry.

Catalyst Constantine

For the public, the prospect of a new use for the old sanctuary in the heart of the city's financial district opens all kinds of possibilities, said Constantine, whose passion for preserving the sanctuary stems from having grown up in Seattle and seeing many of its venerable institutions disappear, such as the Frederick & Nelson department store and the Music Hall.

Constantine, whom Daniels called a catalyst in saving the sanctuary, introduced the church to Nitze-Stagen — a developer that specializes in restoring historic properties. Among its other projects: transforming Union Station and turning the old Sears building into a world headquarters for Starbucks. Constantine was later instrumental in getting SEIU Local 6 to move quickly if a deal was to come together.

"You can't replace a building that was erected in the city's infancy and that has survived all this time and seen so many generations come and go," Constantine said. "When there's so few of them left, I don't think we should accept as inevitable that they're going to be lost."

David Brown, executive vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C., spoke Wednesday in Seattle of a deepening crisis facing urban historic churches.

"American urban religious structures give eloquent testimony to the American experience and the quest for religious freedom," he said. "But these monuments to faith, many of which are architectural landmarks as well as vital community anchors, are falling victim to changing demographics, limited capital budgets and soaring real-estate values."

Other historic churches in the city are struggling with similar issues, including the Seventh Church of Christ, Scientist, in Queen Anne, and the Gethsemane Lutheran Church near Belltown. The latter expects to close a deal later this year with a developer to build a 37-story apartment tower on its parking lot, preserving its sanctuary and mission to serve the poor.

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company


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