Destroying history – the demolition of St. Michael’s church

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church opened 43 years ago on Christmas Eve. Located at the corner of Northwest 23rd Avenue and 43rd Street, many Gainesville residents knew the church from worshiping there, listening to concerts in the acoustically superior sanctuary, attending St. Michael’s Episcopal School or purchasing a Christmas tree on the front lawn.

Embodying Alachua County’s motto “Where nature and culture meet,” the park-like religious campus with a two-acre, protected conservation area was a unique resource in our community.

The St. Michael’s mission branched off from the Holy Trinity congregation in 1958. In the context of segregation and the Jim Crow South, the church made a goal of integration and inclusion of all Gainesville residents, regardless of race. St. Michael’s evoked the Guiding Principles of the Episcopal Church to “affirm that the free access to all institutions is our ultimate goal of our work.”

In 1974, the congregants of St. Michael’s commissioned architect Nils M. Schweizer of Winter Park to prepare a master plan and design a new sanctuary. Schweizer was a protégé of America’s greatest 20th-century architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, and applied his Organic approach to design where a building sensitively interacts with and celebrates its site.

Schweizer specialized in the design of religious buildings. He prepared plans for some 100 institutions and oversaw the construction of more than 40 churches. In the early 1970s, Schweizer, a devout Episcopalian, was named president of the national Guild for Religious Architecture.

He held “deep concern that the worship community be housed in the finest spaces, within the community’s fiscal capability.” This passion for ecclesiastical architecture was evident in St. Michael’s magnificent, dramatically lit and acoustically superior sanctuary.

Last year, St. Michael’s was one of 20 individual buildings identified as meeting the criteria for local landmark status and inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places as part of a comprehensive cultural resource survey led by the city of Gainesville with grant funding from the state of Florida. On Nov. 6, the city’s Historic Preservation Board unanimously voted to submit the local landmark nomination for St. Michael’s. Attorneys for the Episcopal Diocese of Florida requested a postponement of the scheduled Dec. 4 public hearing. The city capitulated.

On Dec. 12, the diocese filed for a permit to demolish St. Michael’s. The day after Christmas, within hours of the permit being issued, demolition began.

In a public statement, the diocese claimed the building was in such an advanced state of disrepair that it could not be salvaged. Where was the evaluation by an expert?

I have more than 20 years of experience assessing the condition of historic buildings and was, by invitation of the diocese’s local attorney, able to examine the church up close. There were no roof leaks or signs of structural failure. The building was solid, just neglected.

The diocese also claims that a “group of citizens … attempted to take control of the property.” This is also false. Landmark designation of the church would not have prevented the sale and development of the site. It just meant that St. Michael’s had to be incorporated into any future use. It could have been the most interesting Walgreens or Starbucks in Gainesville.

Those who sought to save St. Michael’s Church are not anti-progress. Every great city in the world uses historic preservation as a development tool. Rehabilitating and adaptively using existing buildings economically benefits communities in a variety of ways while helping them retain their sense of place.

Some people challenge the notion of landmarking a property against an owner’s wishes. This property, however, is owned by an organization that does not pay taxes. We give churches tax-exempt status because they provide value and enhance and serve the community. This pact is a tenant of our society.

St. Michael’s benefited from property tax exemption. Depending on use and design, the proposed new development could negatively impact the values of the surrounding properties of citizens that do pay taxes.

Last month, the Catholic Church convened an international council to establish new guidelines for the sale and reuse of their properties to help ensure they serve the good of the community, not just commerce. Pope Francis said that any decisions about future use should consider the needs of, and be made “in dialogue” with, residents.

The citizens of Gainesville were denied a dialogue about St. Michael’s Church and the future of their community.

Morris Hylton III is president of Gainesville Modern, an organization dedicated to preserving unique local structures built from 1945 through 1975.