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“Risky” demolition permit plan inspires preservation effort for downtown church

Wednesday, September 9, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

In August, a suggestion to pursue a demolition permit for Austin’s St. Martin Lutheran Church sparked controversy in the congregation and preservation community. Though no decision about the permit has been made and church leaders maintain the permit is a means to gather information, the prospect of tearing down the church remains a point of concern for Austinites.

The building at the center of the preservation effort was given an American Institute of Architects award in 2007. Located at 606 W. 15th St., the 1960 building was designed by Robert George Mather and Jessen Associates and features sculptures by Charles Umlauf on the facade, among other significant features.

Richard Buerger, who is a member of St. Martin’s property task force, attempted to calm fears in a letter written last month. He spoke with the Austin Monitor on Tuesday afternoon.

Buerger explained that the church was advised to obtain a demolition permit for the sanctuary as part of a valuation process for the property and there is no intention to demolish the church.

“There is no story,” said Buerger. “Obviously, the property is worth more without the building than it is with the building for anybody that would want to buy the entire block.”

Jason John Paul Haskins, a church-building researcher and design consultant, became involved with the matter when a number of congregation members reached out to him with concerns over the plan to obtain a demolition permit. Haskins has been working with congregation members and preservation groups to find some kind of resolution that would ensure preservation of the sanctuary while supporting the church. That effort has spawned a website and Facebook group, which have both attracted a fair amount of attention recently.

Haskins told the Monitor that the plan to seek a demolition permit seems “extremely risky.”

“That sounds insane to me,” said Haskins. “Every expert I’ve spoken to has said there is no reason why that could possibly be the case.”

Buerger explained that the demolition permit would be only to obtain information. Any actual demolition would require a lengthy democratic process within the congregation.

“First of all, you can’t sell or demolish anything without the congregational approval. … We have a property evaluation task force, and they make a recommendation, basically, to the congregation, and the congregation can do whatever they see fit,” said Buerger, who explained that a decision would take place “sometime later in the year.”

However, should a demolition permit be approved, there would be nothing at the city level that would prohibit an actual demolition.

Buerger stressed that there are not any immediate plans to demolish or sell the church. The church, he explained, owns the block the church sits on and about three-quarters of the block across the street, and the property church task force had been exploring options for the downtown land for several years.

Haskins points out that seeking a demolition permit for the sanctuary might not only threaten the physical sanctuary, it would also introduce the property to a process that could ultimately impose historic zoning on the land, limiting the church’s redevelopment options in the future. Though it is rare for the city to impose historic landmark status on a building without the owner initiating the process, Haskins said this could be an exception. “I don’t want to say anything is a given, but it seems like this one would be, if anything was,” he said.

“There is absolutely no question that this is one of the most significant buildings in the city,” said Haskins. “Globally, I would put this in the top five most important post-war churches in America.”

Haskins added, “It’s also a huge asset for the city in terms of the cultural and performing arts groups … who use the space and love the space. It would be a shame to see that lost.”

Photo by Jason John Paul Haskins, Locus Iste made available through a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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